It has been a relatively quiet, yet tumultuous year. Fiscal 2017 is over and done with, having begun full of anticipation for momentous changes in contracting policy, leadership, budget priorities and overall direction, but disappointingly ending in a relative status quo.

In many ways, acquisition has been on “pause” as the new administration’s perceived priorities and controversy took center stage. In fact, there is no significant administration-expressed public policy concerning acquisition. There have been side comments about the use of time-and-materials contracts and high-visibility program negotiations (such as the F-35 and Air Force One programs), but no new policy.

There have been no new procurement rules, either (excepting two at NASA), which is the longest time between a new administration taking office and publishing changes to procurement rules since the adoption of the FAR. Executive Order 13771 (Jan. 30, 2017) established the so-called “Two for One” rule, whereby for every one new regulation issued, at least two prior regulations should be identified for elimination. While the ultimate effects of this policy have yet to be realized, agencies have thus far appeared to respond by simply not issuing any new acquisition-related regulations (meaning none have been cut, either).

Meanwhile, the congressional view is bifurcated between, on one hand, recognizing the need for a long-term strategic look at where we are, how we got here and where to go from here (which has traditionally involved comprehensive reviews by experienced professionals who have actual practitioner experience — think Section 809 or 813); however, on the other hand, before any data and subsequent recommendations from those efforts can be offered, Congress continues to mandate new, alternative, often non-data-driven, complicated and conflicting programs and processes that could further upend acquisition today, if not bring it to a halt. In many of these cases, many of those actually doing the work believe them “bad” ideas (especially concerning such things as FITARA; NDAA legislation abolishing the Department of Defense’s Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics; or the DATA Act’s mandate for specific technology solutions). Many of these initiatives may likely create new silos and potential agency disorganization.

As an example, consider previously mandated DoD base realignment and closure (BRAC) initiatives, which broke up large DoD acquisition buying commands resulting in forced relocations away from senior leadership, industry counterparts and the requirements community. Are the services’ acquisition commands or fourth-estate agencies more effective and efficient since their BRAC moves? These initiatives may have hastened the loss of expertise through retirements, and the dollars saved by office rentals may have been far exceeded by the loss of skilled people working and living within physical proximity.

Most involved in acquisition today find it difficult to link specific federal acquisition statutes and regulations to performance impediments. However, there is no limit to the position papers, surveys, and recommendations that trade groups, think tanks and other interests offer regarding acquisition. Everyone has a position and opinion, but what about measurable data supporting proposed alternatives?

Here are potential impediments to the performance of the acquisition process:

  • Guidance complexity and over-prescription — Too much non-FAR-based supplemental guidance, letters, procedures, circulars, orders, desk-books, reviews, directives, etc.
  • Required internal, management, non-acquisition, organizational processes that diffuse decision-making and accountability — These run from extra reviews, “chop chain” coordination requirements, micromanagement, reporting requirements, etc. Too many cooks continue to spoil the soup.
  • Lack of funding certainty — This results from very late or no congressional budget approvals and implementation, which flows down into program dysfunction. Late budget implementation resulting from lack of approved government budgets requires constant reprogramming. Lacking long-term funding certainty (even for less than one year, let-alone multi-year funding certainty) directly affects program success.  

When the administration eventually gets around to acquisition, this list may change. However, we must address causation before solutions, which brings us to the conclusion many have known all along: Congressional mandates (other than a timely budget) must address the people issue. Today’s professional contract management corps (which includes the entire acquisition team — program management, technical, legal, finance, etc.) must be able to comprehend, absorb, interpret, react to and thus implement everything those outside the process keep throwing at them.

Ultimately, it’s about the people. Give them the authority to be successful. Given changing workforce demographics, this is vital to attracting and retaining contract management professionals the government can rely on. In today’s outsourced government, what else is more important than effective delivery of services to citizens? Those implementing outsourced solutions need guiding principles (not prescriptive mandates), broad education, strategic professional competencies, a professional career path and a supportive, empowered work environment.

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

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