The value of a 'home inspector' for IT acquisitions

In the manner of Confucius, agencies should admit what they don't know and consider having technology experts review acquisitions.

Jim Soltys

"True wisdom is knowing what you don't know."

That quote by Confucius makes you wonder if he was on the autopsy committee of one of our bigger IT system failures. Each review seems to zero in on decisions made and money spent when we thought we knew but didn't. In government, the missions are complex, and the systems and atmosphere even more so. Representatives of each specialty involved seem to know what they know, but no one worries about what we don't know.

My wife and I recently went through the stressful process of buying a home, in the course of which we hired a home inspector. The inspector had no conflicts of interest, came with excellent past-performance references and was a subject-matter expert in this field. He found problems that we would never even have thought to look for. Working with our real estate agent to ensure that these items were taken care of before we closed on the house gave us peace of mind and eliminated potential headaches later.

Government buyers of technology products and services are no different. They want to acquire the right solution while avoiding downstream problems. In the acquisition process, the program office identifies its needs, just as we did, and works with the contracting office, just as we did with the realtor, to negotiate contracts with vendors. But where is the home inspector in this scenario?

My wife and I don't have time to be experts in realty contracts or home inspections, so we outsourced those functions. Likewise, program office personnel, including technical experts, are typically busy with the essential functions of executing the agency's mission. More important, most are not skilled in the acquisition of technology. Likewise, contracting officers have enough to do without becoming technology experts as well.

Wouldn't it make more sense for the government to obtain the equivalent of a home inspector to assist with complex technology acquisitions? Done right, outsourcing acquisition "home inspection" functions to an independent set of technology experts could yield the following outcomes:

* Acquisition requirements that are right from the beginning due to the availability of accessible domain and process expertise.

* Less ambiguity and lower proposal costs for vendors because requirements are more likely to be in a language they understand.

* Reduced need to pull everyday employees off their "day jobs," potentially for months, to do an acquisition.

* Faster and more efficient evaluations because SMEs with domain and acquisition expertise can analyze vendor proposals for both technical and "gaming" issues that evaluators, with their more limited experience, might miss.

* Fewer protests, especially successful ones, due to more thorough and consistently documented evaluations.

* Fewer post-award surprises (e.g., change orders or unenforceable terms and conditions) from unrecognized structural flaws in your acquisition.

Government personnel are under tremendous pressure. Can resource-constrained program and contracting offices really be expected to develop the technical expertise to successfully acquire the needed innovations for the increasingly digital government? Is it reasonable to expect the buyer to do the "home inspection," too? If not, is it safe to simply trust the builder?

My home-buying experience tells me that the answer to each of these questions is no, and I believe many if not most government program and contracting offices, and their vendors, would agree. The solution of a small but skilled community of SME service providers is often overlooked because the cause and effects don't show up in obvious and immediate ways.

But listen to Confucius: This problem has been around for a long while.

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