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

Commentary by Cathleen Garman
Former staff member
House Armed Services Committee

Twenty years after the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act (FASA) was signed into law, Congress — as well as the Pentagon and the defense industry — is again pushing for major acquisition reform. Actually, since the 1994 passage of FASA, at least four additional major acquisition reform laws have been adopted: FARA, SARA, IMPROVE, and WSARA, with their acronyms sounding almost like words in a song. Nor can we forget the earlier DAWIA (Defense Acquisition Workforce Incentive Act), which focused on training, education, incentives, etc., in the development of those who are responsible for the acquisition of weapons systems.

What will be the “catchy” name of the next initiative?

Before I proceed with any further comments, let me state up front that I was involved in all of these efforts, both when I worked in Congress and in the private sector. Acquisition policy was my passion for 30 years. Though now retired, I avidly follow the news in this arena — and I wonder where the next reforms will take us. There are smart people far more current than I who are putting forward ideas about what is now needed, focusing on cultural change, improved training, better incentives for the acquisition workforce, and more attention on the total life-cycle (from research and development through sustainment) of a weapons system, etc.

But much of this sounds like deja vu all over again. Is there anything new?

Many of the ideas suggested have been the rallying cry for previous reform initiatives. So one must ask, do federal agencies and Congress have the patience to allow reform to really take effect?

While being one of the culprits (so to speak) in the many initiatives beginning with FASA and DAWIA (and beyond), it often seemed to me that one flaw in any acquisition reform effort is that we (whether it’s Congress, the federal agencies, or industry) never want to wait for reform to become fully effective. It was often said that it would take a minimum of five years for FASA to be fully implemented and effective, and perhaps longer. But, no sooner had FASA passed than Congress launched into FARA, followed by the other major initiatives, as well as additional policy provisions in the annual National Defense Authorization Act. Even the Pentagon and other federal agencies (such as the General Services Administration or the Office of Federal Procurement Policy) are continually churning with new ideas (such as Better Buying Power, now in version 3.0). The defense industry also annually provides its own input and suggestions.

In these efforts, will we just be reinventing the wheel? FASA was based on the 1992 Section 800 panel report, a review of acquisition laws and regulations mandated by Congress for the Department of Defense in recognition that new acquisition tools were needed to embrace and take advantage of new/commercial and emerging technologies — tools that would be faster and easier to use.

Certainly not all I’s were dotted or T’s crossed with FASA; in many ways, Congress believed that much of the Pentagon’s acquisition reform could be accomplished through existing regulations. One major benefit of FASA was to send a message to the Pentagon that it was okay to push the envelope and reform its acquisition system itself — a message still relevant today.

Perhaps one starting point for the latest reform efforts would be to relook at the Section 800 report, especially what laws Congress didn’t tackle and why those weren’t included; and also what Congress did do and why. I would hope that those involved in today’s reform effort also are rereading FASA and tracking its implementing regulations, with a view toward where things diverged from congressional intent; and what needs to be changed/repealed/strengthened. All those options should be on the table before piling on new laws. The same review should apply to each piece of subsequent legislation enacted.

Rethinking the federal workforce and improving the acquisition workforce are important steps forward as well. But again, the groundwork already has been laid. There is the aforementioned DAWIA for the acquisition workforce as well as language focused on Total Force Management (a look at each workforce element — military, civilian and industry — involved in ensuring success for any activity or project). Leadership and training programs for defense civilians also are in place, though too often underfunded or ignored. When it comes to the workforce, much already has been done, but lack of interest often trumps all policy, whether legislative or regulatory, no matter how well developed and thoughtful and necessary.

Regular review of our acquisition laws and regulations is appropriate, and even necessary, in order to keep up with changing times and circumstances. Enacting new laws, however, isn’t always the solution, unless we fully understand and analyze our past paths.

This guest commentary is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform.

Cathleen Garman spent more than 30 years working on acquisition policy issues. She was a professional staff member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, as well as on the U.S. House Small Business Committee. In addition, Cathleen was the Senior Vice President for the Contract Services Association as well as Vice President at the National Defense Industrial Association. In her association positions, Cathleen served as co-chair of the Acquisition Reform Working Group (ARWG). A former Peace Corps volunteer (Philippines), Cathleen received her MA from George Washington University and her BA from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Cathleen has twice received the “Federal 100” acquisition award and was a recipient of the NCMA Herbert Roback Memorial Award.