Additional tools are good, but contracting officers need OFPP cover

There’s an old saying among acquisition professionals that unless the FAR says you can’t do it, then you can. What happens many times, however, is the opposite and that stops contracting officers from being innovative.

As part of its effort to bring innovation into the federal procurement process, especially around technology, the White House added another tool to the toolbox to help change the federal culture.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the Office of Science and Technology Policy released a story book of acquisition innovations.

The Innovative Contracting Case Studies is “an iterative, evolving document that describes a number of ways federal agencies are getting more innovation per taxpayer dollar — all under existing laws and regulations,” wrote Lesley Field, deputy administrator of OFPP, and Tom Kalil, deputy director for Technology and Innovation in OSTP Thursday in a blog post.

Along with the case studies, OFPP set up a government-only email group, called the Buyer’s Club, to “provide a useful forum for troubleshooting and sharing best practices across the federal government, serving everyone from contracting officers with deep expertise in the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to program managers looking for new ways to achieve their agencies’ missions.”

In the 91-page document, OFPP and OSTP describe eight different approaches to innovative acquisition processes. Some, such as prizes and competitions, are relatively new to government, while others, such as milestone-based competitions, have been around for a long time, but mostly underutilized by agencies.

While a document such as this makes sense, it’s far from what’s needed.

What OFPP needs to do is provide top cover for agencies when inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office and, especially, Congress come knocking at their door. Over the last five or so years, acquisition professionals have come under more and more scrutiny from auditors, which is causing them to be more conservative.

The White House needs to help traditionally risk-averse contracting officers feel comfortable in doing something different. OFPP’s backing would begin to create the change that many of these new tools, such as the TechFAR or the case studies, are trying to kick-start.

This post is part of Jason Miller’s Inside the Reporter’s Notebook feature. Read more from this edition of Jason’s Notebook.