Congress is hunting for ideas for its next round of reforms to the defense acquisition system, which leaders hope to package up into a bill for members to vote on by next year. But from the perspective of one major industry group, almost everything that’s wrong with acquisition can be fixed without new legislation.
The Professional Services Council’s 80-page wish list of changes comes at a time when both the executive and legislative branches are gearing up for another round of updates to the acquisition system and asking for outside input. And while the leaders of some of those reviews have hinted at narrowly-focused changes around the margins rather than a major overhaul, PSC’s approach tackles everything from the acquisition workforce to policy changes at every phase of the acquisition lifecycle to reforming bid protests.
“I think the bottom line, in our view, is that the time for tactical or incremental change has long passed,” said Stan Soloway, a former Defense deputy undersecretary for acquisition reform who now serves as PSC’s president. “The only way we’re going to make a meaningful impact is to take very, very, sustained long- term action.”
In the view of the 90 IT and service contracting companies that helped assemble the group’s report, long-term action would mean voracious oversight and interest on the part of Congress, but not necessarily the passage of a big package of reforms to existing law. Out of 42 recommendations that came out of the review process, only eight would require changes to existing statutes.
The recommendations were heavy on executive branch action, partly by design because of the difficulty of getting anything through Congress at the moment. But they also reflect companies’ views that many of the current acquisition problems have more to do with the way agencies interpret the law than how it’s written.
One overarching theme in the report is that the acquisition system needs to transform itself into one that’s focused on outcomes, and not necessarily the bureaucratic processes that deliver them.
For example, PSC recommends that the government start using “statements of objectives” as the go-to solicitation method when an agency asks industry to deliver a product, a service or a solution, rather than the current “statements of work” that dominate the procurement landscape today.
“A statement of objectives talks about what you need to achieve. A statement of work tells you what to do. The idea here is when you use a statement of objectives, it gives folks who are bidding the ability to come in and say how they would approach a problem rather than the government specifying in advance how they think the problem needs to be solved,” Soloway told reporters Monday. “It’s really opening the aperture of thinking and saying, ‘Come give me your best ideas on how you would approach this.'”
That recommendation and several others aim to give commercial industry the ability to offer program managers solutions they might not have known existed. The report also asks agencies to let companies respond to requests for proposals in a way that doesn’t precisely follow the strictures within a given RFP, but still gets the job done in ways that allow a company to employ new technology that might come along between the time an award is issued and the end of a contract.
It also suggests the use of a new “innovation template” for every RFP, in which firms could point out specific innovations they could bring to the table but that the government didn’t ask for, and how much each one of them would cost.
“This idea about giving industry the opportunity to help give you a better answer scratches so many itches that I see today in industry,” said Dave Wennergren, a former DoD assistant deputy chief management officer who now works as PSC’s senior vice president for technology policy. “A company will see an RFP and know that they have a better answer, but the government’s already boxed them in, and they’re afraid to give that answer because they’re worried that it will work against them in the evaluation process. If you bring together more ideas, you can do more sharing of risk rather than the government just throwing something over the transom and hoping it gets something back.”
Speed to outcomes
The report’s authors also said they were placing a premium on letting the government buy technology and services much more quickly, and argued that there is no longer much meaningful distinction between those two categories of government procurement. In the report’s terms, “speed to outcomes” needs to be a priority.
“Speed to outcome is actually the critical metric for measuring success, and it guided a lot of our discussions,” Soloway said. “That’s not speed to market, that’s not speed to contract, it’s the speed to an actual outcome. It’s the only metric that actually matters, and it’s a metric that we typically don’t look at very much in government.”
One way to deliver more speed is to create an acquisition system that looks much more like the marketplace in which commercial companies buy IT and services, said Neil Albert, the vice chairman at the consulting firm NCR and who helped lead the drafting of PSC’s report.
He said the current approach to competition means anyone who can meet Uncle Sam’s boutique requirements almost is guaranteed to win a contract, especially for IDIQ contracts. On the other hand, commercial innovators who don’t specialize in government work are unlikely to submit a bid in the first place.
“The perception is that government certifications such as FedRAMP, ISO-9000 and CMMI can determine the contractor’s ability to meet the challenges in today’s environment,” Albert said. “Just because you have these certifications doesn’t ensure you have the right solution or that you can manage the process to meet the program’s goals. The government may be eliminating companies which have the skills to perform, but can’t enter the market because they don’t have these mandated certifications. The cost of entering into and staying in this complex federal environment is high, and commercial companies just don’t want to incur those costs, even though their solution might be the right one.”
Workforce development needs Congressional help
To add a bit more speed and agility to the process, the report also includes a few recommended changes to the bid protest process, with the stated goal of making those protests less frequent.
For example, PSC says agencies should have to offer in-person debriefings to every company that came out on the losing end of a procurement in order to explain why they fell short. That proposal is based on the premise that a significant number of protests get filed in the first place because companies don’t have any clue why they lost a competition, don’t have any avenue to ask for more explanation, and in the end, revert to a protest in the hope that they’ll get lucky when the Government Accountability Office or a federal court intervenes after examining the decision in more detail.
But Soloway said he thinks virtually all of the recommendations his group made are intrinsically linked to one category of reforms he said are vitally needed: a reform of the way the government develops its acquisition workforce, one of only a handful areas in the report that would require congressional action.
The report calls for a reinvention of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, saying it should be beefed up into an organization that has explicit statutory authority to create policy across the entire federal acquisition system, not just over contracting policy. The Office of Personnel Management also would get new authority to create career fields within the acquisition community. In the end, the authors envision a successor to OFPP that would be charged both with setting a common set of governmentwide acquisition policies and overhauling the training process in such a way that the government has a sustainable workforce that’s trained to employ those policies over the long haul.
“We have a human capital crisis. We have a very young workforce being asked to do work that they’re not ready for and an aging workforce that’s not being supplanted,” Soloway said. “We have to fundamentally rethink the workforce, and I think that’s our most important single recommendation. As we saw in the last 20 years, new ideas did get out there, but the training and development of the workforce didn’t keep pace, so things collapsed, and we regressed.”