Federal procurement: The thing we love to hate

I’m going to dust off my old wood plane this weekend and trim a tiny bit off the bathroom door. It’s slightly sticky on the upper edge. After 25 years in the house, I’m sick of having to pull up on the knob before pulling it open.

Imagine a 47-room mansion in which every door and moving part needs a little fiddling. It would present a horrible way to live. But maybe, after a while, you’d take a perverse pride in the quirks.

That’s how it is with the federal procurement system.

Greg Giddens, the head of the Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction at the Department of Veterans Affairs, put it this way: “We talk about our problem until we sort of like it. Then we fall in love with it.” Eventually, Giddens said, people fall into a state of “learned helplessness.” Giddens spoke at the National Contract Management Association’s conference this week in Chicago.

Odd, isn’t it? The government spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year to buy stuff. Neither vendors nor contracting people seem happy with the system. but it persists decade after decade. Small fixes occur. This threshold gets a kick-up. That rule is clarified. Sometimes landmark legislation comes along that promises to revolutionize things, but the laws take forever to become policy. People are reluctant to buck the status quo, like gyroscopes that stand upright after you release them from their tilt.

The acquisition community makes good faith efforts. But, as Dan Helfrich pointed out, sometimes it seems the government adopts new terminology, but not real change. He cited the concept of agile processes. In 2017, 80 percent of requests for proposals contained the word agile, or sought agile methods or components. But on many projects, the Deloitte Consulting principal said, agile and old-fashioned “waterfall” methods live in tense opposition.

The result? Two strategies for change have emerged. They aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, they can help one another.

The first strategy is to look for small changes that could spark big effects. Helfrich cited a small innovation that revolutionized basketball. The shot clock was first proposed in 1954 by Danny Biasone, owner of the forerunner of the Philadelphia 76ers. The shot clock changed the game overnight from boring and low-scoring to exciting and high-scoring.

What might be such a change in federal procurement? How about losers in protests pay the winner’s legal costs?

That idea is one of many under consideration by a group looking at the vast totality of procurement law and regulation. The Section 809 Panel is pursuing the second strategy, namely look at everything and propose a top-to-bottom reform agenda.

Congress ordered the panel into existence in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act. Its membership roster reads like a who’s who in acquisition. As the encyclopedic Dave Drabkinexplained, it’s 11 committees looking at literally every word in every document in force for defense acquisition. Maybe what it proposed could spill over into civilian agency acquisition.

Drabkin named some of the more radical changes in the hopper for consideration. Like eliminating multiple-award indefinite delivery-indefinite quantity contracts. “We’re not sure they save money or promote competition,” he said.

The panel can only make recommendations, and you never know what Congress will go along with.

Regardless, I sense a consensus for reform. The Trump administration has a great opportunity — a really, really great opportunity, as the president might put it — to channel this reform current. His first step should be to nominate someone to run the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

This post first appeared as a column at Federal News Radio 1500 AM.