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Hitting a Home Run; Baseball and the Acquisition Process

From The Acquisition Corner

An interesting post by Bill Gormley of Washington Management Group described parallels on two of my passions, baseball and improving the acquisition process. It is an interesting read and a fun way of discussing what can be a somewhat difficult process and subject. Some specifics points he makes and my take:

…Normally, an organization’s name change doesn’t affect employees. But because Congress changed the committee’s name and is seemingly focusing its efforts on oversight instead of reform, it has cast a cloud of doubt over the entire league.

Given the intensified focus on oversight, agency leaders are now leery of voicing their support of a contracting officer’s decisions. That would be like team owners not supporting their managers’ decisions. That’s not good baseball, and it’s not good business…

Several legislative pieces do attempt to focus on reform, such as hiring authority, help the glacial hiring pace, and the Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act of 2009 at Defense. Further reform initiatives are undoubtedly on the horizon, with the Office of Management and Budget and Office of Federal Procurement Policy finding ways to trim acquisition costs and improve the procurement process. Nonetheless, finding ways to improve oversight and hold programs and contracting officials accountable is not a bad thing.

…This cloud of doubt goes even higher, to the “replay officials” — the inspectors general and Government Accountability Office. What will these entities do if an agency leader makes a decision they feel is questionable? The focus on oversight has led to more incidents of decision reviews — or instant replays.

The umps “call ’em as they see ’em,” but they can only see some of what has happened. It’s as if the video on an instant replay cut off just as a line drive was nearing the foul pole. Was the hit fair or foul? It’s tough to say when you can only see where the ball landed…

With report after report of waste, fraud, and abuse and no end in sight, the acquisition mission is finally coming into focus as a major issue that needs the attention it so desperately warrants. Acquisition outcomes must be improved, and it is the reasons and decisions that created the mess we are in that deserve carefully scrutiny to improve and create lessons learned for future successes.

…Let’s be clear here: No one is promoting bad acquisition planning. Those on the field try to make good calls — and usually do. Everyone wants a clean and well-played game. The point is that many of the acquisition-focused decision-makers do not have the support they need from their superiors. And Congress has slowed down the acquisition community at a time when the clear signal from the paid attendees — taxpayers — is for government to speed up the process…

The acquisition community needs a strong, focused, and strategic injection of resources to ramp up capability and skills to complete the mission and create a world-class procurement process that always seeks to improve and save money. However, slowing down the process may not be such a bad thing. Throwing good money after bad is not a responsible solution, but happens every day as an overwhelmed acquisition workforce is continually asked to do more and constantly increase procurement velocity (e.g. Recovery awards). Sometimes taking a step back to do things right is a viable option, similar to the analogy of measuring twice and cutting once.

Strategic and thorough acquisition planning is the key to success, and should be done for long-term outcomes. Mountains of data, physicals, and evaluations of long-term performance are done on baseball prospects before sinking millions into a contract. Many procurements, to the tunes of millions, are done through hastily planned sole-source contracts without any price evaluations or consideration of past performance. Although speed in baseball can make a huge impact on the outcome of a game and season (i.e. Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS; which still gives me heartburn thinking about it), in the acquisition process it can be a disaster.

Mr. Gormley’s conclusion, however, is right on point:

…Give the agencies the authority to elevate the acquisition community to professional status. Give them the tools to hire, train and keep training. Remove the oversight fear factor of making a bad decision. Yes, Congress, continue your overall responsibilities of oversight, just let the professionals carry out their assignments…

The acquisition workforce must be rebuilt and trained so it is a professional, business advisory community that includes the skills and capabilities of acquisition life-cycle management. More regulations are not the answer; it is allowing the community to do its job that is needed. Guidance on contract types and what contract activities will be frowned upon by well-meaning but ill-informed legislators, in addition to always being fearful of being second guessed, have created a risk-averse environment that is having difficulties attracting talent. Much like New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner always second guessing Billy Martin created an environment known as the “Bronx Zoo” in the 1970’s, so too has a destructive environment been created that needs a healthy dose of resources to improve and see positive outcomes on how the Government buys, and also how those purchases are conducted.

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