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Innovating federal contracting: Be careful what you wish for [Commentary]

February 8, 2017 (Photo Credit: Jenifer Morris)
We’re all aware of — and perhaps have participated in — the criticism of today’s model of contracting with the federal government.

It takes too long; costs too much; has too many rules; has too many checks and balances; has too few checks and balances; doesn’t utilize commercial best practices; doesn’t work as well as the commercial model; doesn’t involve the [insert favorite functional specialty here] enough in the process; doesn’t provide enough training for its acquisition professionals, etc. 

One criticism echoed from all corners is that government contracting isn’t “innovative” enough. The frequent promotion of taking innovative risks in government contracting — by both government and industry (sometimes by those without responsibility for the outcome) — is a longstanding demand of all acquisition and contracting pundits. 

However, when such change is forthcoming, criticism and second-guessing is swift in response and often before the results of such innovation are yet known. Recent examples include lowest price technically acceptable selection strategies, transactional data reporting or other transaction authority. All of these initiatives have resulted in constituencies warning, criticizing or outright objecting to their use for numerous reasons. The mantra “damned if you do; damned if you don’t” comes to mind. 

So what’s the contracting officer or program manager to do? Everyone wants innovation in acquisition, but not really? Take risks, but make sure everything works out well? Leadership has your back, as long as [insert favorite oversight authority or trade association here] is supportive. Buy more commercial, but make sure [insert favorite administration, agency, industry priority, or compliance and socioeconomic statutory and regulatory requirements here] is adhered to and included. 

Under a new administration, there is a sense of unpredictability. Everything is on the table across multiple government policy areas — acquisition included. Thus, along with optimism that true “reform” could actually occur, there is conversely fear as well that, yes, true “reform” might actually occur! Perhaps the many subsets of today’s government contracting community should be cautious and prudent in criticism of today’s acquisition system, and thus be careful of what they ask for. One is reminded of the line from Charles Dickens’ "A Tale of Two Cities": 

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness … [I]t was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

The credibility of today’s professional pundits and promoters of acquisition change is under threat. What if change really occurs? What if the innovation we all say we want actually happens? While there will always be individual winners and losers in such a scenario, one winner might be empowering those innovative acquisition professionals in government and industry interested in program results; those invested in improving what is acquired versus how it’s acquired. Another winner might be the American taxpayer.

Time will tell. Hang on to your seats and let’s see what happens. 

Michael P. Fischetti is the executive director of the National Contract Management Association.  

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