Note: This column is adapted from a talk I gave to a group of career and elected officials this past weekend a the National Association of Counties and Public Technology Institute summit in Washington.
Hardly a day goes by without someone asking me this question: What is ahead for procurement and acquisition policy under the Trump administration?
The answer is the same as for any of several other important government functions. Information technology, cybersecurity, federal real estate. We simply don’t know at this point.
Our hunger for more guidance from the Trump administration stems from what we’re used to from the last 24 years of administrations.
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The Clinton administration started off with its reinventing government program. Vice president Al Gore famously recited the ridiculous-sounding specifications for a federal ashtray, or more properly, an “ash receiver, tobacco, desk type.” The specs ran for 10 pages. Gore comically read them on a late night television show.
But the larger initiative led to rediscovery and redeployment of forgotten authorities under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). These included a return to more emphasis on commercial items, oral presentations and best value procurements. The chief information officer-oriented Clinger-Cohen Act superseded the archaic Brooks Act for a new era in procurement. Congress realized information technology changed from an industry dominated by IBM and the so-called Bunch to a free-wheeling commodity market.
The George W. Bush administration brought the President’s Management Agenda, with its emphasis on program performance review, A-76 reviews for outsourcing of non-inherently-governmental work, e-government and shared services.
The Obama administration went further on shared services, launching the cloud and data center consolidation initiatives. It morphed e-government into digital and mobile government, still with plenty of work to do.
But it canceled A-76 competitions and imposed a range of ideologically-driven rules on federal contractors. These included:
Legislatively, the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, or FITARA, superceded the Clinger Cohen law. The idea is partly to give CIOs much more budget authority over departmental and component IT budgets. Congress has been bird-dogging the agencies for progress on implementing FITARA. Now we’re in the third legislative framework since IT came into government in a big way.
The acquisition of services has overtaken, in dollars, the acquisition of products. This means that services contracts are often the delivery mechanism of products.
Where the civilian side is pursuing the idea of an enterprisewide approach using the category management model, on defense we’ve watched the launch and development of the Better Buying Power initiative. Now in its seventh year, the basic idea is to bring more affordability to defense programs, including both acquisition and lifecycle. It seeks to return competition to a greater number of buys. And where possible it seeks to simplify and streamline the acquisition process.
Here is what I would anticipate for federal procurement and IT. I have no inside knowledge of the Trump administration. This is based on carefully watching the president and after 25 years of being in Washington and paying attention to this stuff.
First, I anticipate a return to A-76 competitions. The administration has already shown its disposition to outsourcing. This insight came in the federal hiring freeze. Short-term agencies are not permitted to outsource in lieu of hiring people. But the longer term goal of shrinking the federal workforce through attrition does does tell agencies to consider outsourcing as a way to do this. When it does, expect vehement opposition from the federal unions and a resumption of the debate over what is inherently governmental. This could happen soon. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has already reversed the Obama-era policy against private federal prisons.
Second, contractors can expect relief from those rules. Court rulings have already neutralized some. And anyhow, contractors are like all companies in having to operate under the same pay and anti-discrimination laws as everyone else. What will go are the onerous reporting burdens and their potential for abuse.
Third, contract spending will rise. President Donald Trump’s executive order on rebuilding the armed forces, issued only days after he took office, promises higher appropriation requests. It calls for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis to submit a plan to achieve certain readiness goals that will cost money. Already the Homeland Security Department is seeking bids for contractors to build prototypes of a wall for the Mexican border.
Fourth, on the other hand, given promises of fiscal frugality in other areas, initiatives like Better Buying Power, the General Services Administration’s Category Management and trying to get agencies to close data centers and use clouds and shared services will continue. They’ll probably get new names and rewritten policy directives, but these types of initiatives have had bipartisan support for a long time.
Fifth, I expect a renewed effort to tackle federal real estate. The overabundance and excessive spending by the government on real estate is something the Obama administration took on. It had partial success. As the Government Accountability Office recently reminded everyone, the government still pays for millions of square feet of property it doesn’t use.
Yet a consolidated headquarters project for the Homeland Security Department — started in 2004 or so — still has little to show for it. A Veterans Affairs hospital project in Aurora, Colorado got to be years late and hundreds of millions of dollars over budget to the point where Congress had the Army Corps of Engineers take it over. The Agriculture Department’s Cotton Annex building right in downtown D.C. has been vacant for 10 years.
President Trump is a real estate man. Look for the administration, if driven by nothing other than Trump’s pride in his real estate prowess, to try its hand at getting control over the federal government’s 273,000 buildings.