By Steve Kelman

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An opening bid on 'acquisition of the future'

Shutterstock image: illuminated crystal ball.

For a bit over a year, a modest-sized group of government procurement experts has been getting together periodically and informally to discuss "acquisition of the future." The original idea came from Kymm McCabe, the former Defense Department official who now runs the government procurement improvement consulting organization ASI Government, and the effort has been co-chaired by Dan Chenok, executive director of the IBM Center for the Business of Government and the former head of the Office of Management and Budget's information policy and IT oversight efforts. (And even before that, a one-time Kennedy School student.)

"Acquisition of the Future," appropriately honored with initial capital letters in the title, began quietly.  It was teased last May at the FOSE conference, then built momentum through small-group discussions over the summer and was a topic of conversation at ACT-IAC's Executive Leadership Conference in October.  Now the effort been launched to the public -- at, and through columns with both FCW and Government Executive. (Full disclosure: I have hung around the periphery of this effort from Cambridge, though have hardly been a central player.)

This effort is an inspiring one – at a relatively downbeat time for government contracting – and deserves support and engagement.  But, as will be apparent from the two latest columns about it, it still needs a lot of flesh on the bones.

Here is the vision:

"Our online, interactive, data-rich, agile and value-focused era — which we refer to as the Collaboration Age — stands in stark contrast to our linear, information-hoarding, regulation-laden and process-driven government and acquisition systems, which were designed for the long-gone Industrial Age. If we are to harness the tremendous energy and opportunities created by the Collaboration Age, then government acquisition and IT procurement must be transformed."

OK, but…can we get more specific? In the limited interaction I have had with the Acquisition of the Future group, I have felt somewhat awkward as the (presumably ivory tower) professor urging this group of practical Washington types to get more operational.  I am taking advantage of this blog to make the appeal to blog readers, and other participants in the good government community, to engage in this effort and help put flesh on the bones.

In that spirit, I am going to take up two specific issues on my mind, one of which was mentioned in a kickoff column and the other not.

The first involves risk-aversion in the procurement system (and more broadly government in general). McCabe and Chenok wrote: "The expectation that government and acquisition should be zero-defect enterprises undermines innovation and constrains transformation by requiring layers of oversight and generating risk aversion. We need a national discussion about accepting risk to achieve value across government—especially in acquisition—just as we accept risk in our daily lives."

I by no means completely disagree with this statement, but I ask myself – and would ask you readers – whether many civil servants have not become inappropriately afraid of their own shadows. "If I take a legitimate business risk and it doesn't pan out, I will get an IG report attacking me," is a worry I have heard tens of times.  

But is this an urban legend? I know a lot of IG reports attacking agencies, sometimes inappropriately, for violating (or not complying with all the paperwork requirements of) internal agency regulations, or for violating standards of integrity, or sometimes for wasting money.  I could be wrong – please, readers, correct me – but I can't think of a single IG report that attacks someone taking a legitimate, ethical business risk that happens not to work out.  Should our leaders be doing more to bust such myths?

The example not cited in the launch, but which has been on my mind recently, is why there has been such a slow takeup, despite almost 20 years of effort, of strategic sourcing in the government.  This is real low-hanging fruit for cost savings.  It's not that it's gotten nowhere, but progress has been slow.

Making strategic sourcing happen requires work, both in negotiating contracts and in getting people to use them, but neither change should be wrenching. I don't quite want to say "if we can't make this change in 20 years, what can we do?" (A number of the procurement system changes in the 90s actually spread quite quickly at the time.)  But I do want to say if we hope to build an Acquisition of the Future, we must better understand why a change like strategic sourcing has moved so slowly.

These are just a few ideas aimed getting a more concrete dialogue rolling.  Meanwhile, Kymm, Dan, and gang, congratulations on your efforts, and good luck.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 17, 2014 at 12:17 PM


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