What you need to know about IT

Acquisition: Knowing enough to ask the right questions

09/15 FCW Magazine Feature.

The acquisition system — the means by which the federal government buys billions of dollars of IT goods and services annually — is a popular whipping boy for lawmakers, officials and analysts. It is characterized as a long, bureaucratic process that is further complicated by the 1,000-plus pages of the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

“The system is complicated, but you can definitely achieve success within that system,” said Joe Jordan, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and now CEO of FedBid. As maze-like as the FAR might seem, he added, “the vast majority of what’s in that book is just common sense.”

Furthermore, one doesn’t need to be an IT guru to become a federal program manager in charge of buying IT, Jordan said. An apprenticeship under an experienced supervisor and some IT training can suffice.

David Wennergren, who was assistant deputy chief management officer at the Defense Department from 2010 to 2013, said a program manager needs a baseline level of knowledge of commercial IT best practices to succeed. He added that he is concerned about the “dearth of new blood” in the IT government workforce. Half the contracting workforce has fewer than 10 years’ experience, and a quarter has less than five years’ experience, according to Wennergren, who is now senior vice president of technology at the Professional Services Council.

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“So you have a contracting workforce that maybe hasn’t built up the confidence to try all the flexibilities the acquisition rules allow,” he said.

As encouraging as the General Services Administration’s 18F and the White House’s U.S. Digital Service are, there are nowhere near enough federal technology professionals for the government to do all of its IT development in-house, so IT-savvy acquisition experts will be essential, Wennergren added.

He and Jordan agreed, however, that contracting offices’ risk aversion is a far greater impediment to success than a lack of IT know-how.

Asking the right questions

Federal contracting officers might not need to be able to moonlight as IT specialists, but they must be able to ask federal contractors the right questions.

“With a federal IT budget that’s worth $80 billion, there’s no way” the government can get into the nitty-gritty details of all those IT system and service procurements, Wennergren said.

Furthermore, the government is struggling to keep up with galloping IT advances that progress so rapidly they can vex the companies that come up with them, and that pace isn’t likely to let up. Therefore, the government must find a way to adapt.

Wennergren said agencies should rely on contractors for product-level expertise, and federal contracting officers should focus on knowing how and whom to ask for effective IT solutions without going into technical specifications. “Too often, government organizations don’t ask for the right things,” he added.

The government has been injecting IT savvy into its acquisition and education processes — through the U.S. Digital Service’s activities, 18F’s blanket purchase agreement for agile services and OFPP’s effort with the Federal Acquisition Institute to incorporate more IT-specific training into the Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting.

Although he said he approved of most of those efforts, Wennergren added that they are not attempts to keep up with specific technologies and instead are intended to change the conversation about IT on a number of levels, including the ability of federal contracting officers to ask the right kinds of questions and think in a less rigid way about how to implement IT projects.

“The prize to be gained from 18F will be federal agencies that understand how to ask for” what they want in terms of end results rather than specific products and narrow specifications, he said.

Federal contractors, meanwhile, must develop a more holistic view of the IT environment at the agencies they hope to serve and have the technical knowledge necessary to understand how their products and services can address those needs.

Wennergren said cloud computing contracts offer a good example of how the technical nuts and bolts behind the managed service are mostly left up to the vendors while federal contracting officers focus on the business and management details.

“In most cases, the underlying technology solution is left in the hands of technical experts,” he said.

About the Authors

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.

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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