Federal procurement can sound like a dry topic. But to people who follow it closely, it becomes an exemplar for much of how the government relates to everything else — companies, citizens, even other countries. The government’s relationship with industry can be cooperative or antagonistic, overbearing or casual, creaky or lightning fast. Over time, the system is capable of improvement.
Procurement gets knocked for being too process- or rules-oriented. One edition of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the bible of the profession, runs more than 2,500 pages. The FAR is long and detailed. Yet how many pages of material does someone need to cover to become a lawyer? A certified public accountant? A dentist? A rabbi?
Incidentally, acquisition and procurement aren’t quite analogous, but both fall under the general idea of the government buying goods and services. Although if you look up “procurement” in the definitions section at Acquisition.gov, it says “see acquisition.” In practice they’re often used interchangeably.
Procurement also gets rapped, by the uninitiated or the simply casual observer, for rigidness and resistance to change. In truth the FAR is constantly reviewed and revised, and someone could write a small book about how much procurement has changed in the last 30 years. Those who become proficient in the regulations and enabling statues use them creatively. Like a violin, in klutzy hands it’s unbearable, in skilled hands an instrument of great flexibility. Success in federal buying comes not just from knowing the rules, but also in knowing industry, knowing your agency, and generally the ability to read the room.
I just want to cite one example of procurement progress that seemed striking, at least in the eyes of this observer. It occurred in the context of two big governmentwide acquisition vehicles under gestation at the General Services Administration. One is called Alliant 3, through which agencies will buy information technology services. The other is called Oasis+, for professional services other than IT. Alliant 3’s original request for proposals sparked protests, so GSA is redoing it; now there’s a draft RFP. The RFP for Oasis+ is will be out “shortly.” That’s how Tiffany Hixon, the assistant commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Services, put it at the recent Executive Leadership Conference. The ELC is staged every year by the big ACT-IAC organization. I’ve been attending ever since the first one in 1991.
Federal News Network’s Jason Miller has covered these projects in detail. I just want to point out two features that seem small but in fact represent real innovation.
First, both GWACs will have something called task order pricing. That means would-be contractors can get a place on the vehicles without having to work out prices to be approved in advance by the government. Maybe that made sense for contracts for a million copies of some piece of hardware. But not for professional services. But it’s a new thing in this setting, initiated after enabling language from the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. It doesn’t absolve companies from having to compete, nor the government from conducting competition. But it puts price negotiations where and when they should occur. As FAS Commissioner Sonny Hashmi put it, why negotiate now with seven plumbers for plumbing you might not need for five more years?
Second, the vehicles will include contracting versions of open season. That means if a company is not selected for a place the first time the GSA makes awards, it’ll have another chance in, say, a year. “Frequent on-ramps” is the term Josh Houseworth, a GSA senior contracting official, put it at ELC.
Make the ship or get lost in the wake — that’s been a big bugaboo for contractors. I recall years ago the president of the federal division of a Fortune 500 technology company telling me she’d had a disappointing year because of a failure to get a place on some big GWAC.
Both Alliant 3 and Oasis+ have a ways to go before they open for business, but they show what’s possible when the government is serious about keeping up with contemporary best practices.