Federal acquisition: Art or science?

Mike Hettinger argues that we need acquisition officials who understand not only the letter of the FAR, but also the spirit of its intent.

Michael Hettinger

For the past two years, the government contracting industry has worked with Congress and the Obama Administration on a variety of acquisition reform initiatives. And with both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees planning to launch a full-scale acquisition reform effort early next year, you can expect this to be a focus area for the foreseeable future.

These efforts will go far beyond what we have been debating for the last two years through FITARA and related proposals. As I thought about where we have been and where we are going, I began to wonder whether acquisition reform is an art or a science.

What do I mean by that? Let me try to explain.

The science of acquisition reform would have us dig into the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) line by line, analyze what works and what doesn’t, and then eliminate those sections that slow the acquisition process or don’t make sense in today’s environment. We’ve been asked to do this before, but the net result is usually new regulation that is nothing more than a twist on what was already there. That said, if there are regulations clearly standing in the way of efficient acquisition, let’s identify them, eliminate them and move forward.

If we look at acquisition as an art, however -- recognizing the need for flexibility within what is necessarily and inherently a strict rules-based process -- I believe we may see a different result. Earlier this summer, I submitted comments on behalf of TechAmerica to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees in response to a March letter seeking input to guide their acquisition reform efforts. In that letter, I called for leveraging “flexibility within the FAR to allow contracting officers the flexibility to achieve the best outcome for their agency, without fear.”

This approach is essential if we are to begin to improve acquisition, and it doesn’t require any legislative or regulatory change. And it's a view that has been reinforced by the recently released TechFAR, which among other things seeks to leverage such flexibility.

We need a highly skilled and appropriately trained acquisition workforce. In order to truly make acquisition an art, we need acquisition officials who understand not only the letter of the FAR but also the spirit of its intent: to acquire goods and services efficiently and effectively. This requires a different acquisition workforce, with a different mindset, and an understanding of the changing dynamics of the federal marketplace. Agencies need expedited hiring authority to make sure we can get these officials in place, and updated training to keep their skills fresh.

Acquisition is only part of the equation, of course. We must also focus our attention on program management, ensuring that each project has a knowledgeable and authoritative program manager whose responsibility it is to ensure success. Recognizing program management as a career path in the federal government would help.

And finally, of the lessons of Healthcare.Gov is that sometimes we just need to be able to kick down some doors to make things work. The “tech surge” was probably less of a surge and more of an explosion of common sense, along with a breaking down of unnecessary barriers to success. We shouldn’t be afraid to do more of that, within the confines of the FAR.

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