GSA announces plan to simplify federal contracting

The General Services Administration’s contracting division is developing a new Web platform and business structure to bring more expertise to complicated acquisitions, the agency said April 9, 2014.

The new initiative, called Category Management, will involve assigning a Federal Acquisition Service manager in charge of each of several acquisition categories, such as information technology, professional services and travel.

Those managers will help develop a Common Acquisition Platform with information about contract vehicles, historical prices and other data related to specific procurements, FAS Commissioner Thomas Sharpe said in a 1,000-word blog post.

The acquisition platform will eventually include several tools related to specific categories of government purchases, according to the blog post.

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The poster child for doing procurement the wrong way

Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter isn’t going anywhere. But members of the House Armed Forces Committee don’t have to be happy about it.

That was the message from ranking member U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., during a panel discussion Wednesday at the Bloomberg Government’s Defense Transformation conference.

“I hate to say this without laughing, but it’s better than it was,” said Smith. “The F-35 is the poster child for doing procurement the wrong way, but to the extent possible, they’ve cleaned up. It will replace 90 percent of fighter aircraft. It’s going forward. There’s no scenario where we’d scrap it at this point.”

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DOD enacts faster, more agile technology acquisitions process

Information technology programs represent a considerable portion of all acquisition programs within the Defense Department, the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition said Tuesday (Feb. 25, 2014).

In fiscal year 2010, the National Defense Authorization Act directed that DOD develop and implement new acquisitions processes for IT systems, Katrina G. McFarland said during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s readiness and management support subcommittee.

So, based on recommendations contained in the 2009 Defense Science Board Report, the department is working to speed up the route to acquiring new systems by increasing collaboration and improving processes, McFarland said.

“To do this, one must start with the defined requirement or capability,” she added.

In the past, once an IT requirement or capability was defined, organizations were able to acquire only that technology which precisely met the predefined parameters.

The introduction of the “IT box” concept is a significant change to the IT acquisition process, McFarland said. The IT box gives organizations the ability to acquire technology that improves on already-approved technology, as long as the changes don’t exceed certain parameters.

In addition to the IT box, the department has introduced interim guidance to adopt “modular, open system methodology, with heavy emphasis on design for change,” which will help DOD adapt to the changing IT environment, the assistant secretary said.

“The policy addresses the realization that IT capabilities may evolve, so desired capabilities can be traded off against cost and initial operational capability to deliver the best product to the field in a timely manner,” she said.

In accordance with the fiscal year 2011 NDAA, the department chartered the Cyber Investment Management Board, which unites IT policy and operational requirements by identifying gaps in resources and in capabilities, McFarland said. But, she said, finding personnel with the required expertise work in IT acquisitions and development is “challenging.”

“The talent pool is small,” she noted.

One way the department is working to address these challenges is through the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund, McFarland said, which is supporting training of IT acquisitions personnel through the Defense Acquisition University.

In addition, DOD is developing a cybersecurity guidebook for program managers to assist them in understanding what cybersecurity activities are necessary at each point of the acquisition life cycle, she said.

“The department will continue its efforts to operate as affordably, efficiently, and as effectively as possible,” McFarland said. “We are evolving our approach to acquisition for IT and recognize the distinct challenges that come with it.”

NASA’s Johnson Space Center takes customer-first approach to IT

NASA’s Johnson Space Center is taking a different approach to working with vendors and one that the Obama administration has been promoting over the last few years.

Annette Moore, the acting chief information officer, said vendors approach her organization through a vendor management office.

Annette Moore, acting chief information officer, Johnson Space Center

Annette Moore, acting chief information officer, Johnson Space Center

“When Larry Sweet was the CIO at NASA Johnson Space Center, Larry made an intentional decision to get us more in the direction of a business technology office,” she said. “We actually created a position for vendor management support and IT procurement support. So we actually have a staff dedicated here on our directorate level that works that vendor management piece to ensure that the vendor gets connected to the right office in our directorate, gets connected with the right individual in our directorate and gets the right level of attention to get them connected into what we are doing with our initiatives and our priorities. We also have a chief technology officer on the directorate staff. That CTO does the same thing and those two positions work hand-in-hand to ensure that the vendor gets the appropriate level of contact at the right level within our directorate.”

Sweet moved on to become NASA CIO in June.

Moore said the goal is to simplify the path for vendors to find the most appropriate person and to help her office ensure they are using their time most wisely.

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Pentagon and Congress begin rewriting DoD acquisition rules

The Pentagon and the U.S. Congress have begun the tedious effort of reviewing decades of antiquated, cumbersome defense acquisition policies to speed up the defense procurement process and get more bang for the buck.

Unlike previous acquisition improvement projects, which in some cases made the process more complicated, those leading this effort are optimistic because lawmakers and Defense Department officials are tackling this review together. These officials also believe that the decline in US defense spending provides incentives to make the project successful.

“The idea is not to really change any of the intent behind the existing laws, but just to simplify that body of law, make it more comprehensible, make it easier to implement and make it something that is much more focused on results and not as confusing and complex for everybody,” Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said during an interview in December.

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A fair and reasonable approach to contract reform

For all its significance, you would expect to hear it mentioned more often. However, the term “fair and reasonable” is sprinkled throughout the Federal Acquisition Regulation and dramatically affects government outcomes. Its interpretation ultimately affect how billions are spent, jobs are created, stock prices are valued, products or services are delivered, disputes are settled, and other laws and regulations work together to meet government mission.

Government contracting can create various forms of dispute, litigation, and protests, but this occurs after the contracting officer makes a determination as to whether, for example, supplies and services are coming from responsible sources at fair and reasonable prices. Source selection officials, attorneys, auditors, program managers, agency senior executives, and others all play important roles, but the beauty of the process is in shielding contract decision-makers from external influence, either irrelevant or political. A “fair and reasonable” determination is not made in a vacuum and involves far more than arriving at the cheapest price. Instead it should be in writing and includes other “factors” that together comprise a proper assessment of the propriety of a contract award. Despite much guidance, nothing obviates the need for an independent, fair and reasonable determination based on the totality of information and expertise available.

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Study group issues recommendations to improve DoD acquisition

The IBM Center for The Business of Government has issued a set of eight recommended actions that government can take to improve the federal acquisition process.

The report, the third in a series on the government acquisition process, is entitled “Eight Actions to Improve Defense Acquisition” and can be downloaded here.

While the report centers on acquisition in the Department of Defense (DoD) because of its dominant size in the federal budget, the eight proposed action s— which build on previous acquisition reforms including increased competition, more use of best value contracts, expanding the supplier base, and better tailoring of contract types to contract goals — apply to civilian agencies as well. The authors emphasize the urgency of acquisition reform in DoD given budgetary constraints and security challenges, finding that “DoD will need to gain every possible efficiency, while resisting the temptation to buy defense on the cheap.”

More information, including information on a second report, A Guide for Agency Leaders on Federal Acquisition: Major Challenges Facing Government, is available at:

The first report in the series, Controlling Federal Spending by Managing the Long Tail of Procurement, provides the first quantitative analysis and recommendations about government “tail spend” (smaller, non-core expenditures that often receive less attention in cost control but can add up to a large overall amount).

In tech buying, the U.S. is still stuck in the last century

Four years after President Obama vowed to “dramatically reform the way we do business on contracts,” the spectacular failure of the website has renewed calls for changes in how the government hires and manages private technology companies.

But despite Mr. Obama’s promises in the last two months to “leap into the 21st century,” there is little evidence that the administration is moving quickly to pursue an overhaul of the current system in the coming year.

Outside experts, members of Congress, technology executives and former government officials say the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website is the nearly inevitable result of a procurement process that stifles innovation and wastes taxpayer dollars. The Air Force last year scrapped a $1 billion supply management system. Officials abandoned a new F.B.I. system after spending $170 million on it. And a $438 million air traffic control systems update, a critical part of a $45 billion nationwide upgrade that is years behind schedule, is expected to go at least $270 million over budget.

Longstanding laws intended to prevent corruption and conflict of interest often saddle agencies with vendors selected by distant committees and contracts that stretch for years, even as technology changes rapidly. The rules frequently leave the government officials in charge of a project with little choice over their suppliers, little control over the project’s execution and almost no authority to terminate a contract that is failing.

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DoD official pushes back against contracting ‘myths’

Pentagon procurement official Shay Assad sought to dispel what he said were myths that the Defense Department’s contracting workforce is untrained and unprepared.

“Our workforce today is healthier and stronger than it has been in the last 10 years or so,” said Assad, who oversees pricing for the department.

Some of the myths he addressed included:

■ Reports the contracting workforce is shrinking. Assad said it has grown by nearly 24,000 people over the last five years through a combination of additional hiring by the services and through in-sourcing.

■ Reports DoD is not hiring enough experienced contracting officers. He said that DoD has focused on having 35 percent of its contracting workforce have industry and business experience — that number is about 34 percent today.

■ Rumors the Defense Department is moving toward lowest-price, technically acceptable contracts. Assad said that only one major program falls under that category and that LPTA is less than 2 percent of DoD purchasing and that he is not pushing to increase that number.

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Carter: Pentagon’s Acquisition System Still Not ‘Responsive’

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Ash Carter is on his way out the door in two weeks. In 2009, he took over as the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics and led that office until 2011 when was nominated as the Pentagon’s No. 2.

He’s been in charge of overseeing major changes to the Defense Department’s acquisition process as former Defense Secretary Robert Gates as well as his successors leaned on Carter to pare down the budgets and help cut bloated weapons programs.

Just days before Carter is scheduled to leave his post at the Pentagon, Carter made a not all too surprising, but jarring comment in a Nov. 29, 2013 interview with the Wall Street Journal:

“We have to have a military that is agile in a modern world where technology is changing so fast,” Carter told the Wall Street Journal. “The Pentagon’s way of doing business simply isn’t responsive.”

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