Much attention has been focused on the federal government’s need to facilitate increased participation by the types of “innovative” and high-tech firms changing our traditional business models, society and behaviors through new commercial applications and apparently new and successful ways of approaching problems. These new firms are seen to be leveraging existing or new technology, lowering costs or “disrupting” current industry practices in product delivery and customer engagement. Government agencies are visiting these firms, asking for their involvement, and even putting satellite offices near them with hopes perhaps of getting their ideas and approaches to somehow rub off and change today’s seemingly archaic and inefficient government models.
This issue is most on display within government acquisition. The notion of 20-year fielding cycles for implementing new technologies affects not only the effectiveness of government services, but could adversely affect the security of the nation itself. Many attempts by Congress to legislate improvement by moving program responsibilities around, defining specific solutions to specific requirements, and focusing on regulations may have unwittingly made today’s system more complex, dispersed, confusing and frustrating than ever before.
Recent analysis by the undersecretary of defense (acquisition, technology, and logistics) attempted to quantify the additional cost of firms’ business with the government as compared to the private sector. This included reviewing significant statutes, regulations, policies and best practices. The results were surprising, and maybe a little disheartening.
Most methods of lowering government contractor costs are already available under existing authorities. While it could take one or more acts of Congress to improve the environment and maybe facilitate more private competition into government needs, much could be done under the much-maligned Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) as written today.
So why aren’t these FAR flexibilities being taken advantage of? What holds government (and its contractors) back from trying these solutions out? Is it agency culture, fear of risk-taking, lack of sufficient (or any) project management or contract management? When did the government shift from world leadership in development and delivery of innovative technology and programs to questioning its abilities — and deferring, if not pleading, with industry to share its secrets of success? Has industry become better resourced and more cutting edge?
Without the federal government, scientific and technological advances that created the Internet, put a man on the moon, and dramatically improved citizens’ health — all while concurrently providing them a strong sense of national security — would not have been possible. Unfortunately, government budgets today don’t have the effect they once did, and the progress in years past that occurred quickly when it counted — through innovative people and organizational structures within agencies — seems to have become more about compliance than results.
Government acquisition improvement starts — and perhaps ends — in the human resources department. It is not a matter of rules and regulations, but about truly professionalizing the workforce. This requires addressing governmentwide HR deficiencies, including how professionals are recruited, defining what skillsets they bring before onboarding, changing the regulations that prevent managers from hiring or moving those they wish, and bolstering pay, benefits and performance plans.
As any manager, private or public, will say, “its all about the people.” Get the right leaders, staff and organization, and the rest will take care of itself. The innovative culture respected in Silicon Valley is built on the people within it.
Today’s government contract managers operate under a culture opposite of the entrepreneurial spirit and noble service required to move the acquisition needle. Today’s fixation on Silicon Valley firms and what they are doing right starts with who and how they bring people on. Lowering the cost of selling to the government is resolvable by the people working within it.
Michael P. Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association. His earlier federal career includes time at the Defense and Energy departments, and the General Services Administration.