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Speeding Up the Acquisition Process is a Challenge

From The Acquisition Corner

An interesting action plan for speeding up the procurement process for Recovery procurements was recently proposed by Dr. Allan Burman, who served as administrator of federal procurement policy in the Office of Management and Budget. His plan, which was conducted as an interview with CGI Initiative for Collaborative Government, outlined an approach where agencies could expedite their stimulus awards by implementing a system of performance-based contracting proven effective in the private sector.

The vital component of the plan is the creation of “tiger teams” being referred to by Dr. Burman as “contracting officer performance representatives,” as opposed to the traditional contracting officer technical representatives or COTRs. These commando teams would operate much like an integrated product team, with representatives of various functions and stakeholder teams providing holistic input into a procurement. These teams would have experience in performance-based acquisition (PBA), where agencies focus on the capabilities and outcomes of what is needed, allowing industry to propose innovative solutions to addressing the requirement in hopes of achieving best value and achieve more effective buying. Further, these performance representatives are envisioned to help develop requirements and provide the oversight needed for many services-based stimulus contracts on various procurements at an agency.

The process proposed by Dr. Burman begins by getting the tiger teams and stakeholders (e.g. agency procurement officers and program representatives) in a room together for a quick training session of a couple of hours to explain what is PBA. The group would then spend some time, presumably another couple of hours, working on a pilot project to test their new training and to increase their proficiency with PBA methodology. The team would then be cut loose to begin to focus on the actual stimulus procurement, and outline the business outcomes, objectives, metrics, performance measures, and the level of Government oversight required. Further, this would also include incentives and if they should be included into the contract. All of these activities are to be completed in two-and-a-half days as described, with the end result an accountability matrix which outlines what the agency is procuring (e.g. outcomes and capability).

The initiative outlined by Dr. Burman helps achieve desired outcomes of enhanced competition, encourage small business participation, and increase transparency. Certainly if this process could be executed, it would go a long way towards achieving desired objectives. However, I think the reality of the federal procurement process has inherent flaws and problems that make this approach difficult to implement.

Although I too agree that PBA is one of the best contracting methods to achieve cost, schedule, and performance goals, I do not agree that this approach is as feasible as Dr. Burman believes it to be. I do not believe that a few hours of training will allow personnel to convert needs into outcomes. Personnel must have a sufficient proficiency level to execute PBA initiatives, which will simply not be obtained in a couple of hours. The acquisition workforce is not sufficiently trained in PBA methodology for this initiative to be successful, which is confirmed by recent surveys from the acquisition workforce themselves indicating PBA is still a capability gap throughout Government. Further, these tiger teams would have to be dedicated to this task, going from contract to contract as Dr. Burman outlined. My concern here is that these tiger team members would need to be seasoned experts with vast experience in PBA, contracting and program management, in addition to training. Finding enough of these procurement veterans may be an issue, unless a small group jumps from agency to agency. With the difficulties in acquisition workforce hiring and retention, I am not sure what kind of impact these teams could have given the demands on the workforce and the amount of Recovery actions currently being prepared and those that remain on the horizon.

Another recommendation that Dr. Burman discusses is to improve communications with industry, which I do think is a vital component that needs to be done more proactively to help improve acquisition outcomes.

Getting procurement requirements right takes lots of good communication, not just internally but also with the private sector, so you can make sure you know what you’re looking for. One approach is for agencies to invite contractors to come in before they submit proposals to have due diligence discussions to gain clarity about requirements. This kind of communication helps level the playing field for potential bidders, particularly if an incumbent contractor has performed the work for many years. Of course, agencies need to be careful not to provide procurement-sensitive information or give any one bidder an unfair competitive advantage.

This approach has many benefits, such as improved market research, requirements validation, and possible increases in competition. However, many procurement offices have become very risk averse. Although the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) encourages exchanges with industry (FAR Subpart 15.201), exchanges with industry are incorrectly seen as favoritism, increase possibilities of protest, or simply seen as improper or having the appearance of impropriety. Further, Dr. Burman encourages the use of draft request for proposals, in which the agency makes a “good-faith effort to identify its needs and alerts potential bidders” to its desired outcomes. This is another effective tool for requirements validation and exchanges with industry, but the main culprit here with why they are not used is because of time-pressures and the glacial pace of the current acquisition process. Contracting Officers feel that they simply do not have the time in the current environment, and must keep moving procurement actions forward.

These issues really focus around culture and the current process which is completely ineffective. If procurement processes are to be analyzed for possible improvements, one area that can be improved is the layer after layer of procurement package reviews. With all the different review cycles, the required approvals for a typical procurement can be many months. This is even worse for major acquisitions, where the review process and final procurement action can take years. For technology buys, the Government often finally buys out-of-date solutions where innovation was needed or wanted to improve operations. Although I appreciate the approach Dr. Burman outlines, perhaps the tiger teams can be used to speed up the review process. I often cringe when I am developing Work Breakdown Structures for my clients and I have to account for 3-4 months of review time for procurement packages. This does not even account for possible rework and re-reviews, which could add another 2-3 months of lead time. Half a year in reviews is inexplicable, but often common practice across Government.

Nonetheless, with the right mix of skills, personnel, and training, Dr. Burman’s approach could go a long way to improve acquisition outcomes by focusing on defining the right set of requirements, in the right way, and with the help of the right audience and stakeholders. I just hope that the endemic problems in the federal acquisition process can be resolved if worthwhile initiatives like Dr. Burman’s can come to fruition and be successful.

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William R Wright

Hi Mr Garcia,
Your point about in-depth training is well taken. I have to respectfully take some exception to the notion that a Tiger Team could effectively move from one agency to another, effectively processing PBAs. The skills required for performance based acquisitions that are efficiently and cost effectively awarded to the best candidate, are primarily predicated on practical experience with the type of service being acquired and also importantly requires fair, un-biased, a-political, loyalty to the agency needs. The same skill set that makes for good acquisition of a new bridge do not likely make for quality acquisition of secure border technology.
At my agency, the US Governemnt Accountability Office, staff are highly educated and then further trained in specialized areas such as Helath care, national defense, etc. It is not typical for staff to transition quickly from one group to another, although this is actually encouraged of staff to take advantage of if they desire.


Jaime Gracia

Thanks William. I agree that is does not seem sensible, much to your point as you need dedicated resources committed to the mission to usually have better results.


Mr. Gracia,
I’m particularly keen to your emphasis on “defining the right set of requirements, in the right way, and to with the help of the right audience and stakeholders”. We find in our work with Federal government acquisition/procurement programs that the quality of the requirements definition is the single most important determinant of success.

While defining sound requirements can certainly be time consuming and challenging, there are approaches that make this process easier and more effective. One such approach is to help the stakeholders to think less about “criteria” and more about “objectives” – what we want to achieve from the acquisition. Filter criteria are often needed, but thinking primarily in terms of criteria can lead us down the wrong path. Let’s say for example that we are buying a car, and we set a criterion that requires that the car have at least 240 horsepower. The question we need to ask is for what purpose (what’s our objective) do we need the 240 horsepower; do we need it to pull a boat or to “get off the line” quickly to impress our friends. Further, we might find a car that meets all of our objectives, but is dropped from the consideration set because it only has 235 horsepower. On the balance, this car may have been the best alternative depending on the relative importance of the horsepower criterion.

Helping our clients understand and apply the subtle yet important differences between criteria and objectives has been a productive practice. I’d be curious as to the approaches you use to better ensure quality requirements.