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Effective acquisition: A key enabler for successful IT modernization

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CIOs across the federal government have been increasingly frustrated with the lengthy and complex federal procurement process and the lack of flexibility to implement and modernize their current technologies and systems. Balancing risk and innovation in acquisition is a challenge. Requirements definition and development, traditional cultural barriers across agencies and between government and industry hinder better acquisition outcomes. What’s more, working effectively with industry to enhance digital services requires considerable coordination and communication. Within the IT acquisition community, there are many examples of failed projects that didn’t live up to their potential.

With the Modernizing Government Technology Act , the President's Management Agenda, the General Services Administration’s Centers of Excellence and the government reform plan, IT modernization has been clearly identified as a top priority across the federal government. Improving the federal procurement process must be part of the IT modernization equation. Agencies often focus on the technical capability they want to bring in to modernize their IT but spend too little time on how to effectively acquire it.

Best acquisition practices are already well known

There has been a lot of talk in the acquisition community about best practices, including adopting a more agile procurement process, fostering better communication with industry and driving more innovative solutions. Many acquisition officials clearly understand that these best practices can help, so why isn’t there greater adoption?

Issues of culture and communication are by far the biggest reason. Traditionally, there are barriers between government program and acquisition offices, as well as between industry and government. We often see situations where acquisition officials are reluctant to engage with industry. They default to a standard procurement process versus trying something new. These cultural norms have existed for decades. They are changing, as are communication practices, but in many places, poor communication still plagues acquisitions.

Changing the organizational culture is critical

Program and acquisition team culture is key. While fostering better communication with industry is important, the relationship between industry and government is the central hurdle. Acquisition officials and technical stakeholders within the government need to communicate better with each other to understand what the program office is trying to do and then work to find the right solution to make it happen. Culturally, team members need to think how they can creatively get to 'yes' versus being stuck on 'no.' Everyone knows that culture doesn’t change quickly, but we’ve seen some great examples recently across government (and from GSA) demonstrating more openness to creative acquisition solutions. It’s clear that the culture is shifting.

Culture and communication go hand in hand

Fostering effective communication goes a long way in driving change. When people are physically located in the same place, there’s greater and more meaningful conversation, and better communication is the result. Instead of a laborious back-and-forth email chain, stakeholders should meet face-to-face to understand each other’s pain points. In addition, an executive champion can help communicate the vision, connect the IT modernization to the mission and articulate how important the initiative is. For example, at the GSA's Federal Acquisition Service, Commissioner Alan Thomas recently spoke about the importance of IT modernization to his broader vision for FAS.

How to start in your organization

How should agencies start implementing these principles? Here are three key considerations:

1. Start small with pilot efforts. Small projects are less risky, and it’s easier to get folks to buy in with something modest.

2. Have an executive champion on board to provide leadership for the effort, demonstrating that new innovative approaches are acceptable and even rewarded. Then culture will start to shift.

3. Be deliberate and set the conditions for meaningful communication. Initiate new communication channels or forums and try to co-locate teams where possible to encourage more open communication.

We've all seen examples of acquisitions gone awry. An agency spends months or years working on a requirement, industry invests a lot of resources preparing proposals, and either the agency must cancel the procurement entirely and start over, or it awards a contract to a vendor that doesn’t deliver what’s needed to fix the problem. Millions of dollars can be wasted.

To avoid these situations, start with a small project, learning from what others have done. Adding some level of innovation into the procurement process will help agencies modernize their IT and enable their important mission.

About the Author

Ben Marglin is a principal at Booz Allen Hamilton, where he focuses on strategic IT consulting in areas including governance, strategic planning, portfolio and investment management, and enterprise architecture.

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