Acquisition reform has become somewhat of a chaotic practice unto itself. It often complicates more than it solves. Proposals are layered upon other proposals, often requiring the rolling back of previous reform efforts, which are in turn replaced by new efforts, which themselves may still conflict with previous or concurrent efforts.
The argument is often made that the Federal Acquisition Regulation itself is the problem; that the FAR and its agency specific supplements prevent smart and agile contracting due to far too many onerous and counterproductive requirements. The other side of this argument, often made by those who understand and know how to use the regulations, states that proper acquisition is a people issue, not a regulatory issue.
However, with that said, people can work more effectively when the overriding policies and guidelines are clear, consistent, easy to understand and relatively constant. In this, federal procurement guidelines — as documented in the FAR, Executive Orders, policy letters, memorandums, guides and instructions — can and do certainly and significantly contribute to unnecessary complexity and thus become part of the problem. This problem has grown over succeeding acquisition reform efforts and the steady stream of rulemakings supported by all constituencies involved.
Thus, in its total, the FAR and its accompanying guidance can appear so daunting that those attempting to pull out a concise set of recommendations for true reform of the acquisition system become overwhelmed. Where do you start?
Commercial contracting seems more widely understood and certainly is less complex than federal government contracting. A short-term, seemingly easier "fix" may be to "clean-out" FAR Part 12 of all the "regulatory creep" that has occurred since its creation, which has thus resulted in something not very commercial-like at all.
For the acquisition system as a whole, however, perhaps a tedious, systematic, but necessary effort would be to methodically list all the requirements and where they come from, and reorganize them in a chronological order that starts with requirements inception through contract closeout. This may help create a baseline and measurable understanding of the task at hand. From there, the (again) tedious, systematic and methodical consideration of each and every acquisition rule — built up over the years, like barnacles on a boat's hull — can be reviewed and validated for continuance, modification or termination. If this were combined with another round of "plain English" editorial revision, the layman and everyone involved — the professionals, the customers and perhaps even the ordinary citizen — may better understand what is involved in the acquisition system and thus how to manage effectively within it (which may be the fundamental issue) in order for our federal government to remain properly resourced to perform its vital mission.
Self-imposed rules need not be so incomprehensible or confusing that the very existence of the rules, rather than what they say, becomes the challenge. As a government spending tax dollars, there simply must be rules, and this must be accepted.
It is human nature to attempt improvement and change. As real or perceived issues arise, it is therefore perfectly natural for rules to build up and become more complex over time. However, rules must be adopted and used by real people. Just as traffic rules must be understood by everyone who drives, as evidenced by a simple driver's test, acquisition rules must be better understood by all professional customers of the system (potential suppliers and the government mission adopters), not only the professionals that manage and work within it.
The road ahead need not be murky and can be viewed optimistically. In any event, it will be tedious. The sooner this task begins, the better.
Michael P. Fischetti is the executive director of the National Contract Management Association.