Is it time for fresh procurement reform or just a rereading of existing law?

Few activities have vexed the federal complex of Congress, agency managers, overseers and regulation-writers over the decades more than procurement. Buying things, so simple to individuals, is a highly legalized and regulated process in government. You’d think the Federal Acquisition Regulation with its eight chapters and more than 50 detailed parts, along with its equally voluminous Defense-specific counterpart, would cover everything.

They do and they don’t.

These documents give contracting officers and other agency officials the procedures they need for every procurement situation. Yet, the phenomenon endures that the government fails at large and complex procurements time after time — especially when the effort involves information technology.

Tech-rich border fences, new fighter aircraft, case management systems, logistics systems, the federal healthcare exchange — all have proved expensive, visible and divisive because they’re late, over budget, don’t function or never get delivered at all.

This doesn’t happen because people don’t try or because they’re ill- intentioned. Rather, because they operate in a system marked by ever more complexity, diffuse lines of authority and scant reward for doing things right.

A long string of legislation has sought to keep procurement practices in line with changing markets and technologies.

In fact, you can divide modern procurement into roughly two eras, each defined by major legislation. After the 1972 Brooks Act, IT procurement became the province of the General Services Administration, which had the power to delegate purchase authority to agencies. The Brooks era lasted until the 1996 Information Technology Management Reform Act. ITMRA wasn’t purely a procurement reform, but it did away with the Brooks Act. It also instituted a new way for federal agencies to do IT investments strategically.

That’s the prevailing law at the moment. ITMRA, also known by the names of its House and Senate sponsors as the Clinger-Cohen Act, has been a partial success. If the Brooks era forced wider competition and better competitive practices, the Clinger- Cohen era bolstered the idea of IT and all strategic procurements as investments that must relate to missions.

In between came a variety of statutory initiatives aimed at improving procurement. The landmark Office of Federal Procurement Policy was established in 1974. The 1984 Competition in Contracting Act recognized that lowest price isn’t always the ideal total value for the government and that contractors could sue their customers in a process known as a protest. The 1994 Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA) simplified small purchases, and tried to strengthen the use of results and requirements rather than detailed specifications. Still more reforms came with the 1996 Federal Acquisition Reform Act, which among other things speeded up down-selects of likely bid winners and fostered the government-wide acquisition contract (GWAC). The 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act established agency procurement officers and tightened up how agencies buy professional services; its idea of performance contracts never fully germinated, though.

Forty years since OFPP, 20 years since FASA, yet procurement boils on the front burner.

So what’s needed for the future? In preparation for our online and on-air special report starting today and continuing through Thursday, Federal News Radio talked to many experts and examined many procurement histories. A few themes emerge.

On the whole, Clinger-Cohen advanced things. But, says former OFPP chief Dan Gordon, agency buyers are still too reluctant to talk to industry in the course of their crucial market research. He says the government needs to rethink its procurement vehicle strategy because too many dollars are passing through GWACs as task orders without sufficient competition.

Some experts think all of the changes enacted over the last 15 years amount to a pile-on that must be pushed aside for a fresh start. That’s the view of the Professional Services Council’s Stan Soloway, a former defense acquisition executive. He thinks there’s too much oversight and punitive action against contractors and that the whole system needs a re-do from scratch.

Others think the most important thing the government can do is slow down and take stock. Cathy Garman, a former staff member of the House Armed Services Committee and a long-time observer of all-things procurement, suggests everyone give already- enacted reforms more time to take root. She thinks it’s worth rereading a review of Defense acquisition practices done a few years back. Congress and DoD, she says, partly misinterpreted the Section 800 Review Panel that examined statutes a few years back. That resulted in some wrong actions, such as the downsizing of the acquisition workforce.

That acquisition workforce is the object of much attention. The DoD’s Better Buying Power initiative is all about a better workforce. This concern is echoed in the recommendations of the IT Acquisition Advisory Council, which recently included revitalizing the acquisition workforce among its recommendations to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. The IT-AAC also mentioned more careful adherence to laws already on the books. On the technology front, it recommended that agencies use agile IT methodologies more.

We’ll be exploring all of this on Federal News Radio — here online and through interviews on both our morning radio show, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and our afternoon program, In Depth with Francis Rose.

The procurement community certainly suffers no dearth of ideas. You’ll hear from many of the most prominent minds in acquisition and procurement. We’ll examine, by day:

Tuesday: What legislation has worked and what has been less successful? Of the many bits and pieces of legislation pending, what might be most significant?

Wednesday: What pieces of the procurement system are in most need of reform? We’ll look at training and workforce issues, how fully Congress understands the issues, the state of government-wide acquisition vehicles, shared services, and bid and award protests.

Thursday: What should the government preserve and, perhaps, replicate across government? What are some of the success stories? How can the government better adopt best practices like incremental or agile development?

A new fiscal year has just begun. Under another continuing resolution, no agency is getting oodles of new money. So it’s all the more important that agencies get the most for the dollars they have. Call it reform, continuous improvement or radical overhaul — looking at ways to improve procurement is never out of style.

More from the special report, Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform:

Column: Scraping off the barnacles of the defense acquisition system

New isn’t always better when it comes to acquisition law

Timeline: 20 Years of Acquisition Legislation