Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association. (Jenifer Morris)
When contracting fails, there are several common reasons offered: the source selection and bid protest requirements; onerous acquisition regulations; an understaffed, poorly trained workforce. However, many contracting officers can relate to significant delays during the planning phase, particularly to difficulties obtaining an acquisition plan (AP).
Often it’s developed well after the contracting request for action. When this occurs, it places contract managers in the unenviable position of delaying RFP release, thus risking agency funding, but more importantly, jeopardizing mission success. The alternative is to jump into a contracting process with ambiguous goals or results. Thus, for all the debate about the effectiveness of government contracting, the success or failure of programs involving government contracting is actually determined very early, often unfortunately before the contracting officer’s involvement—that is, during acquisition planning.
Eyes glaze over when someone references the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), and many are on record as wanting to modify, reduce, or even abolish it. However, the FAR’s Part 7 acquisition planning guidance provides a great roadmap to all the many considerations necessary before satisfying a government need via contract. The program office must take non-delegable responsibility to figure out what, why, when, where, and how they will obtain acquired resources to support their goals. This shouldn’t be another paperwork drill, completed by support contractors or the contracting officer and subsequently filed away. However, that sometimes is the case.
Defending the FAR isn’t always popular, but it does provide clear, understandable guidance on what to consider in an AP, who to include, when key milestones should occur, and howto get there. Just about anything significant and reasonable should be considered and addressed during acquisition planning, along with any alternatives, well before requesting a contractor’s proposal. Later surprises should be few if the homework was completed beforehand. This homework includes open communication with industry to better understand the market, business trends, financing, and available technology; seeking out required expertise within the acquisition team; analyzing affected internal business processes or regulatory/policy mandates; collaborating closely with the requirements community; etc. The FAR even recommends periodically updating the AP to account for inevitable program changes.
So is acquisition planning one of those unnecessary, self-serving, bureaucratic, and burdensome requirements that slows the process and leads to poor outcomes? If the government moved toward a more commercial model, a program or business manager still needs to know where they’re headed and why. Just as the analogous football coach doesn’t take the field without a game plan, program planning must include an AP. When any of us goes to the grocery store, we likely know where and why we’re going, what we plan to buy, and why we chose one store over another. We’ll choose a product for various reasons (quality, price, ease of use, previous satisfaction) and decide payment and delivery terms. If dissatisfied, we’ll return our purchase based on pre-understood criteria.
The integrity, responsibility, quality, and length of acquisition planning must be part of any discussion to improve acquisition outcomes. Contracting solicitation and award processes (like most business) can go smoothly if planned well. But acquisition planning that only completes the file or occurs after the fact will result in less optimal program results. Good contracting managers are instrumental and must be included in this process, but ultimate responsibility lies with the agency, company executive, or program manager. Let’s develop the game plan before we take the field!