Why leadership, not Congress, is key to acquisition reform

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Industry leaders agree it’s necessary to reform the acquisition process for agencies, but talking about the problem doesn’t solve it.

“There’s a lot of different opinions and concepts of what acquisition should be. Everything from ‘Blow it up and start from scratch,’ to ‘We need to buy more like commercial, we may need tweaking of existing law and regulation,’ Michael Fischetti, executive director of the National Contract Management Association, told Francis Rose on his In Depth radio show. “I believe it’s certainly on Congress’ radar — and I think they want to do the right thing, honestly, but I don’t know if there’s any consensus. It’s going to be interesting to see how they react to this in the short run.”

Fischetti, along with Tom Davis, director of government relations at Deloitte and former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, come to the conclusion that better leadership, not more legislation, proves effective in getting the acquisition process where it needs to be.

“I think Congress has been listening. I know that there are committees that have been collecting comments, and the nature of the comments seems to be all over the place. There seems to be no consensus or trend,” Fischetti said.

But when it comes to leadership, Davis said Congress has not made acquisition a priority because too few members have any interest in contracting.

Tom Davis
“In terms of members who understand this stuff from top to bottom, there just aren’t many of them. It’s not a very attractive political issue and most people don’t pin their political fortunes on government acquisitions policy,” Davis said in a separate interview on In Depth with Francis Rose.

When it comes to contracting, Davis, who was a government contracts attorney before seeking public office, said Congress tends to legislate based on personal experiences rather than comb through facts and numbers.

“They legislate anecdotally — they have a friend who had a contract that went awry, or they didn’t win something that they thought they should have won,” Davis said. “It’s been hard to find members who have a keen interest in this since I left.”

Listen to Tom Davis discuss Congress’ role in acquisition reform.

Members of Congress can see the symptoms of the problem, Fischetti said, but fixing the problem requires a more nuts-and-bolts approach.

“Contracting and acquisition is a very visible issue. People know when there’s a protest, people know when a website doesn’t go up. People know if a plane doesn’t perform as it’s expected to,” Fischetti said. “But I would argue that it’s also a symptom of other concerns within an agency or within an enterprise.”

Mike Fischetti
Among those that Davis considers knowledgeable about acquisitions policy are Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who replaced Davis in office, Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), the vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Darrell Issa (R- Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Sen. Mark Warner (D- Va.) also made Davis’ shortlist of members knowledgeable about acquisition policy.

When acquisition problems do spring up within agencies, Fischetti said he doesn’t pin all the blame on the chief acquisition officers. Rather, he said, a lot can go wrong with all the moving parts involved, from start to finish, in an agency’s process.

“It takes a long time and there’s a lot involved and a lot of infrastructure that can result in whatever the issue is that’s on the horizon. And in an outsource environment, it’s become ever more important. Things are done through contract,” Fischetti said.

Listen to Mike Fischetti’s full interview with In Depth host Francis Rose.

But the solution to the acquisition problem, Fischetti said, doesn’t come in the form of more bills in Congress.

“It’s not necessarily legislative. I think it’s leadership, it’s smart people. A lot of people already involved in this process, many of them have ideas. Let’s make sure that before we act, we ask everybody involved what they think,” Fischetti said. “Get down a little bit to the rank and file, the so-called bureaucracy. Those are people who are trying to do a good job, and probably there’s good reason why or why not things didn’t happen. Things that are not necessarily issues people want to hear, but sometimes it has to happen. It comes down to leadership or management issues.”

The tools for reform, good leadership among them, already exists, Fischetti said. It’s just a matter of using those tools intelligently within agencies, he said.

“Existing regulation allows for a wide variety of things to be happening. It’s just a matter of how we implement it and when we implement it,” Fischetti said. “You’ve heard about LPTA, it’s become an infamous acronym for ‘Low Price, Technically Acceptable.’ But the key point is technically acceptable.”

Finding that right balance between contracting cost and quality, Fischetti said, is a step in the right direction.

“Pretty much, most agencies are in one form or another overseeing some sort of contracted process, and I think part of it is everyone owning up to that responsibility.”

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

Acquisition workers as critical thinkers

31 ideas for reforming DoD contracting

Acquisition quiz: True or false?

Why leadership, not Congress, is key to acquisition reform

Successful DoD acquisition programs start with funding for the workforce

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