The Federal Acquisition Regulation, the principal set of rules that steer $600 billion each year in federal contracting, is as long as the entire Harry Potter series combined — and arguably less enchanting.

As in the case of J.K. Rowling’s hit novels, length is not necessarily a bad thing. When it comes to the words that dictate what and how the government can buy goods and services, less is more, according to a report by Bidscale, a market-intelligence company that offers software to help accelerate federal contracts.

“The Federal Acquisition Regulation, and associated policies, contain thousands of pages of sometimes contradictory requirements that make full compliance nearly impossible,” it said. “The procurement process can take so long that contracts are often overcome by events before completion.”

The result is a stifling of innovation that can’t be capitalized on fast enough and barriers to entry for companies, the report said.

The Defense Innovation Board, which advises top Pentagon leaders on commercial sector innovation, called the web of regulations a “massive spaghetti code” in a report on how the acquisition process has become bogged down by layers of rules.

Today, the FAR is comprised of 53 parts and more than 2,000 pages of regulatory requirements, many of which are essential to everyday business operations, including setting pay terms, identifying small-business affiliation or meeting labor requirements set forth in the Service Contract Act.

Statutes, agency FAR supplements, other agency regulations and other guidance documents may also apply.

New rules come about as changes jointly proposed by the Department of Defense, the General Services Administration, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, acting on behalf of the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council or the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

These rules create little room for ambiguity and, in theory, an even playing field for competing contractors to earn the government’s dollar, the report said.

Together, the FAR aims to “deliver on a timely basis the best value product or service to the customer,” though the report said it has sabotaged itself with a system of complicated policies.

Executing the FAR is the job of nearly 40,000 contracting officers employed throughout the federal government. These members of the civil service leverage contracts to form relationships with over 120,000 business entities and serve as the authority on acquisition regulation, a job that the report said has gotten more difficult.

“Even the most seasoned contracting officers, backed by decades of experience and deep familiarity with the system, spend a larger portion of their time navigating administrative and compliance requirements rather than focusing more on strategic responsibilities,” the report said.

Cameron Holt, who served as the deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, said in a 2020 interview with the National Contract Management Association that the government has so many laws that “contracting officers in the trenches can’t even follow them all because they actually start to conflict with each other.”

In 2020, the Office of Personnel Management assessed challenges facing the acquisition workforce. It found there was a general lack of qualified candidates and that required training is expensive and time-consuming. Close to 7% of the federal government’s acquisition workforce is under 30 years old, said Lesley Field, deputy administrator for Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget, during the 2022 Professional Services Council acquisition conference.

“A common theme among educational and technological organizations is that these 1102s are crucial players in redefining and accelerating federal procurement,” the report said.

Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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