Acquisition

Survey: 'Oversight doesn't love innovation'

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Federal acquisition managers are relatively confident about their employees' skills, but they are less sure about efforts to inject innovation into the acquisition process, according to a recent survey by the Professional Services Council and Grant Thornton.

The two organizations surveyed 80 federal acquisition officials for their eighth biennial Acquisition Policy Survey, more than any of their previous surveys. 'One-third of respondents said workforce acquisition skills have improved, while half said skill levels had held steady. Only 20 percent said skills had worsened, or they expected them to deteriorate.

The survey was set to be released at 1105 Media's ACQUIRE conference on June 9 in Washington, D.C.

Some federal acquisition managers said they have tapped the General Services Administration's Technology Transformation Service, the Department of Health and Human Services' Idea Lab, the Defense Department's Defense Innovation Unit Experimental and similar innovation services. But other respondents expressed skepticism about whether the efforts were fully warranted or even understood.

Forty-three percent of respondents said access to innovation had improved in the past two years, and 57 percent expected that access to continue to improve. According to PSC and Grant Thornton, those numbers suggest that although the need for innovation has become a priority among federal managers, the actual practice of innovation is proving elusive.

When asked about the most significant roadblocks to obtaining innovative solutions, 29 percent of respondents cited workforce skills, 26 percent said fear of oversight and possible protests, and 17 percent blamed the Federal Acquisition Regulation and agency rules.

Furthermore, inexperienced acquisition workers tend to avoid risk and focus on compliance at the expense of innovation. The survey's analysis also said unclear signals from the federal government to contractors on how to deliver innovative solutions present another obstacle to innovation.

The study quoted a few unidentified respondents who questioned how innovation can work in the strict federal acquisition environment.

"At some point, you need to try new methods, but motivations differ with incentives. If something goes right, you save money or improve technology, you get a handshake. But if something goes wrong, you lose a protest, you get fired. If there is no [Government Accountability Office] precedent or case law, the answer is no. Oversight doesn't love innovation," one respondent said.

When asked what kinds of ongoing initiatives would spur innovation, some respondents cited GSA's category management program, Acquisition Gateway project and price management tools. Others mentioned the use of statements of objectives instead of static statements of work and the growing emphasis on incentive-fee contracts that motivate companies to bring projects in under budget.

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