Editor’s note: This column is adapted from a talk Tom gave at a recent meeting of the Washington, D.C. chapter of the National Contract Management Association.
Nothing happens until somebody buys something. I learned that from a magazine publisher I worked for a long time ago. He was mainly concerned with ad sales. But because the magazine served industrial purchasing agents, the comment had double meaning.
In those days I learned about how the millions of types of industrial parts and supplies end up in other end products, how it takes the purchase of sheet steel, tubing, paint glass, rubber, castings, fasteners and electrical components to produce a school bus. Every one of those parts came from a factory which purchased raw materials, and the factory was made of purchased goods and services, on and on, all in a magnificent economic system of value traded for value.
When you think about it, nothing in government happens until someone buys something. Which is why the acquisition profession is so strategically important. To the public and maybe to many federal colleagues, it looks like a dull, administrative function. But we know better. In the mass press contracting officers and the surrounding acquisition people get painted as paper-pushing bureaucrats who add little value.
Countless interviews over the years have reminded me of just how crucial the acquisition workforce is to the operation of the government.
Case in point: I spoke with Michael Flythe, a researcher at something known as the Forage Animal Production Research Unit. Forage, as in animals who munch on grass or leaves, like goats and cattle. It’s part of the Agricultural Research Service, deep within the Agriculture Department. Now the unit is about to get a brand new building on the campus of the University of Kentucky. Secretary Tom Vilsack put a shovel in the groundbreaking.
When completed, it will house six ARS scientists and seven university researchers. Plus lab technicians and admin people.
How will this have happened when the building opens? Only after acquisition people have bought architectural and construction services, laboratory equipment, furniture and anything else necessary to support research into what happens in the bodies of forage animals, some of which have multiple stomachs.
So here, after observing government close up for more than 30 years, is how I view the acquisition profession:
A system, not an activity. Acquisition interrelates with program and mission owners, finance and accounting, and information technology people. It promotes economy and efficiency, while expending money for specific requirements. Acquisition is a team activity requiring collaboration and understanding, discretion and judgement.
Yes, acquisition is also an administrative activity, governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulation and its Defense cousin, endless policies flowing from National Defense Authorization Acts, fixtures like the Planning, Programming, Budgeting and Execution process. (The ghost of Robert S. McNamara still stalks the halls of the Pentagon. Let’s hope the brass listen to the PPBE reform committee.) There’s market research, contract writing and supplier performance tracking.
Acquisition serves the government’s missions and therefore the nation — its security and well-being. FEMA and the Defense Logistics Agency partner to ensure service members and disaster victims are fed, and fed well, not grudgingly. National Institutes of Health laboratories make breakthroughs, undergirded by acquisition. When a 155 mm howitzer shell fires properly and explodes near an adversary, that’s thanks in part to acquisition. Remember, nothing happens until somebody buys something.
Buying on behalf of the government isn’t easy. Administrations burden acquisition, more precisely the buying power of the federal government, with goals that, to be honest, don’t exactly serve the economy and efficiency of the government. Supplier climate and rules, union labor requirements, cybersecurity mandates all add friction to acquisition and to companies doing business with the government.
The systemic inability of Congress to enact annual budgets on time impede the best of agency plans. Program managers themselves often conjure up overly-detailed or just plain impossible requirements. The famous “ash receptacle” specifications unearthed in the Clinton era echo through the ages no less than the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.
I’m not sure if acquisition was ever the sort of job in which you could coast through a career, make the mortgage payments, and wait for that nice government pension. Regardless, today for sure it’s a dynamic profession requiring, for those serious about it, multiple skills plus savvy understanding of business, finance and technology. The FAR, DFAR and all the rest of it make up a violin — unbearable in the hands of the unskilled, but magic in the hands of the talented and committed.
In a recent Uber ride, my driver told me he was from Afghanistan. He had a successful business that vanished — people, contracts with U.S. companies, and his bank accounts — the day the Afghan government fell in August, 2021. Yet he’s here, rebuilding his life, the spotless interior of his Camry evidencing pride and ambition. He is here by the grace of the U.S. government that withdrew its forces and precipitated that very downfall.