DHS's Borkowski: Acquisition officials must get tougher with industry

Mark Borkowski (Image: C-SPAN)

Mark Borkowski, assistant commissioner, Customs and Border Protection's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition (Image: C-SPAN)

You can add straight talk to the long list of strategies floated by Obama administration officials for improving the acquisition process. "One of the major causes of failure in acquisition is [a] lack of candor," the Department of Homeland Security's Mark Borkowski said in an Aug. 6 speech that lacked none of it.

Federal program managers could do a much better job of holding their industry counterparts accountable when it comes to sniffing out cost overruns and performance issues, said Borkowski, who is assistant commissioner in the Customs and Border Protection's Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition. He was speaking at an AFCEA conference in Washington, D.C.

"You have got to be able to challenge what you're being told and to be able to turn the person who's trying to bullshit you into a bowl of Jell-O shaking on the ground," he said. It was one of a handful of blunt lines that seemed to draw amusement and agreement from the audience of acquisition professionals.

The retired Air Force colonel attributed struggles to pinpoint program failures to both government and industry, with different underlying reasons for the blame on each side.

Flawed university curricula is one reason many government program managers lack the math skills to challenge contractors when they present an array of project data, he said. Then there is a bureaucratic culture that rewards compliance rather than risk.

"You want to know why we don't do good debriefs?" he asked. "You want to know why we do LPTA [lowest price, technically acceptable]? Because it's safer. The idea in government, what we are all trained by history to do, is avoid consequences."

On the other side of the negotiating table, defense firms need to be much more forthright about programs that might fail, according to Borkowski. In dealing with contractors who are tempted to conceal potential program failures, he said, "we have to make it clear that the consequences of not telling me are worse than the consequences of telling me."

Borkowski also argued that acquisition expertise is "not nearly as well established" at civilian agencies as it is at the Pentagon. That discrepancy is partly because civilian agencies have tended to focus on IT acquisition and have relied on the CIO office to handle that, Borkowski told FCW. But as their acquisition portfolios broaden, civilian agencies are better recognizing the need to deepen their acquisition expertise, he said.

When asked how he intended to bring about his desired cultural change in making acquisition more about outcomes and accountability, Borkowski said there are several officials across agencies, whom he called a "coalition of the willing," who share that mindset.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.

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