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By Steve Kelman

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4 hopes for better contracting in fiscal 2016

Shutterstock image: cooperation, pieces to the puzzle.

Here are my hopes for changes that, if implemented, should observably improve the quality of government contracting. I list them in order of how likely they are to happen, starting with the most likely.

1. Agile will spread. The idea that it makes more sense to deliver new IT capabilities in quick, partial spurts rather than a big bang that often never happens is so sensible that, eventually, it has to gain traction. The latest sign that it is making inroads in government is the General Services Administration's recent award of 16 blanket purchase agreements to firms that can perform agile services for agencies.

2. Past performance will become a meaningful part of the acquisition process. Considering past performance is central to satisfying customers. Well-performing suppliers are rewarded with repeat business, and poorly performing ones are gradually weeded out. The government has had a past performance evaluation system in place since the 1990s, but it has been a disappointment in terms of radical change — mainly because the government does a poor job of making honest evaluations. Furthermore, completing the reports is rarely viewed as a central, important feature of contract management.

I still believe that an important regulatory change would be to revise the ability of a contractor to appeal a bad rating as opposed to simply entering the company's view in the contract file. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy has been considering making such a change; now is the time to move on it.

3. Government will commit to training IT subject-matter experts. There are not enough high-quality, up-to-date technical and subject-matter experts in federal IT. We are now coming off a period, inaugurated by the GSA conference scandal a few years ago, of ignorant and populistic disrespect for training feds to develop their knowledge base. Especially in a rapidly changing field like IT, knowledge must be constantly renewed. Given the huge amount of money the government spends on IT, skimping on workforce development almost defines the concept of penny wise and pound foolish.

We need to revamp how agencies conduct conferences and training. Government conferences are too often skewed toward self-promotional "listen to what I did" shows by government and industry representatives. Feds need more opportunities to truly learn from outside experts sharing state-of-the-art knowledge.

4. Officials will begin discussing how to balance IT development responsibilities between contractors and feds. The last thing we want is for government to be in the business of developing IT applications. However, I don't see how it is practical for agencies to do a good job of managing contractors without a cadre of government employees who understand both the technologies and project management well enough to be able to evaluate what contractors are saying. And for that to happen, feds need hands-on experience.

I don't have a full-blown solution to this challenge, and I suspect this wish has the smallest chance of coming true this year. Contractor opposition is likely to be significant, and there's no clear model for how to make it happen. Should a few projects be managed in-house? Should agency personnel be involved in some coding or project management teams rather than simply receiving reports from contractors?

We need a discussion in the coming year about how to proceed. Both 18F and the U.S. Digital Service have put the issue of government technical expertise on the agenda, but it appears the infusion of expertise they bring, however welcome, is likely to be short-term.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 14, 2015 at 9:05 AM


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Reader comments

Wed, Sep 23, 2015 Al

Hello, Jason Whetsell, That is some mighty fine writing you link to in your Friday 09/18 comment. Recommend others read it if time allows. 4.5 stars!

Mon, Sep 21, 2015 David Dembrow

Professor--your list contains several hardy perennials for fed acquisition. Why would we expect anything to get better? Pressure from Congress--no change. Pressure from customers--no change. Lack of accountability for abysmal fed performance in acquisition planning and execution--no change. Lack of criminal prosecutions, even for obvious violations. I could go on--as could you. What is better about federal acquisition today than, say, 15-20 years ago? Hard to put one's finger on it, right?

Fri, Sep 18, 2015 Jason Whetsell

Great post, Dr. Kelman! Glad you are back! Regarding #1 (Agile), contracting officers should dust off their performance-based contracting training materials. Many of the same concepts are applicable to acquiring and managing agile development. COs should also empower their CORs and contractors to plan, execute, and even price sprints within a pre-established set of constraints. Re #2 on Past Performance. I recently wrote an article in Contract Management Mag on this very topic: http://read.nxtbook.com/ncma/contractmanagement/august2015/vendorperformance_feat.html . I'm interested to hear more about the value of a formal appeals process. I'd be concerned the vanilla ratings would become even less meaningful.

Mon, Sep 14, 2015 Al

What if the entire federal government were on the same accounting/ERP system? Would that lead to better contracting?

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