Michael Wooten became the 15th administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy about six weeks ago. More importantly, he became the first permanent head of federal procurement during the Trump administration.
In his first two public speeches last week, Wooten hit all the expected notes that an OFPP administrator is supposed to reach—building on existing efforts like category management, upskilling the workforce, unlocking technology to create innovation and harnessing acquisition data to turn it into business intelligence.
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“There is a considerable alignment that supports what we are doing. This is a good time to be the administrator. There are a lot of people who are cheerleading, saying ‘go, go go and do things for us.’ It’s a good time to cut regulations that get in our way and I’m happy about that,” Wooten said at the Tech Trends conference sponsored by the Professional Services Council in Washington, D.C. “This is a good time to skill up the workforce. I have a mindset that we need to help the workforce shift to the right or use those human judgement skills as opposed to the rote stuff that software can do.”
That concept of using software — take your pick of a buzzword: Artificial intelligence, machine learning or robotics processing automation — to address manual processes and compliance requirements would be a huge accomplishment, and maybe the biggest of any OFPP administrator in the last two decades.
One of the main reasons why federal procurement has a bad reputation for being too slow, inflexible and lacking innovation is contracting officers and acquisition workers are rightly concerned about auditors and Congressional overseers getting all up in their processes. If not every “T” is crossed and “I” is dotted, the consequences are severe so that tends to cause the risk averse contracting approach we’ve come to know so well.
The Section 809 Panel looking at Defense procurement found in its compendium of recommendations this concept of risk aversion cuts across much of the procurement process.
“In many cases, the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and other regulations allow for more interaction with industry than is common practice,” the panel states in volume three of its recommendations. “The recommendations … work together in an effort to foster behavior that values interaction with industry and reduces fear of missteps and risk-taking normally associated with interacting with marketplace.”
This is why Wooten, who was nominated in February and confirmed in August, wants to, and should, focus on using AI/ML and/or RPA to reduce some of the risks that are inherent in contracting.
“It is time for procurement leadership to engage in conversations with industry and government [about automated technologies],” Wooten said. “We will be in alignment with the federal chief information officer. We need to make sure that we share a common understanding on what AI is. We need to understand government’s AI requirements and we need to understand industry’s AI capabilities. We need to spark innovation in AI in a manner that includes small businesses to the maximum extent practicable. If we get this right, our AI acquisition is not outpaced by obsolescence and is not outpaced by our near peers.”
Wooten said the acquisition system can’t get in the way of delivering on mission needs in a faster, more flexible and more efficient way.
Speaking at the FedInsider event on IT modernization and moving the cloud last week as well, Wooten said one way to do that is to apply AI or other automated technologies to the flow chart processes of acquisition.
“If you have a job that lays out step-by-step-by-step what is prescribed, if you have a flow-chartable job, then I can replace you with software or at least that part of your work that is done with software. We don’t want to replace workers. What we want to do is augment workers and relieve them of the burden of these step-by-step, tedious types of jobs,” he said. “That is one of the things that is on the horizon. This is not the big evil plan of Dr. Wooten to move workers off to the side. I think the leverage of AI into doing those mundane processes faster than we can, cheaper than we can and very regularly. The prospect of that makes the shifting to the right necessary and supplanting workers out of these mundane positions make it inevitable.”
He said he wants to empower contracting officers to be solve problems, and to do that, they need a different set of skills than they have today. He said he wants contracting officers to spend more of their time to make business decisions versus following a flow chart of processes.
At the same time, Wooten admitted that OFPP needs to do more to get the word out about his plans and goals, and ensure contracting officers know his office can help them.
“We have to get out to the folks in the acquisition workforce to help them understand it’s our responsibility to shape the rules, the tools and the schools for them to be successful,” he said. “We have a branding problem. We need to do a better job makings sure they get the content and handle the communications to ensure people understand what OFPP does for them.”
The best thing OFPP could do for them is to do more than talk about the promise of AI/ML or automation, but look at agencies like the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Homeland Security, the General Services Administration and others to expand the work they are already doing in these areas to more agencies. Wooten would be well served to move quickly on implementing automation as his time in office may be limited to 17 months, and that’s not a lot of time to get things done.