Can we really improve information technology procurement? Absolutely.

By Eric Gregory, Senior Vice President of Consulting at Shipley Associates and Bob Lohfeld, Founder and CEO of Lohfeld Consulting Group

Witness the latest debacle in IT procurement: According to testimony before Congress, approximately $200M was spent to incur this technical, political, and potentially social disaster, which has far reaching consequences beyond the IT community. And how much of this disaster relates to procurement practices? In our world—the world of federal government contracting—it all relates to procurement. Procurement represents a complex lifecycle from the embryonic idea to the final system or service sunset and then even to the cutover or transition to a new system, new provider, or new methodology. None of this just happens.

We have been here before. The idea that we need to reform government procurement is overreaching. There is far too much right within government procurement than is wrong, and we don’t need to scrap what we have accomplished and start over. So instead of reform, we should focus on procurement improvement.

The November 13, 2013 Government Accountability Office (GAO) congressional testimony of David Powner, Information Technology: Leveraging Best Practices to Help Ensure Successful Major Acquisitions, reveals practical concepts that can be extended to improve IT procurement. Through improved dialogue, communication, listening, exchange, planning and action, we can actually improve IT procurement outcomes in the current environment, constraints and all.

Why improvement has failed in the past

The testimony above states, “Information technology should enable government to better serve the American people. However, according to OMB, despite spending more than $600 billion on IT over the past decade, the federal government has achieved little of the productivity improvements that private industry has realized from IT. Too often, federal IT projects run over budget, behind schedule, or fail to deliver promised functionality.” Nine critical success factors for IT programs appear in the testimony: Program officials were actively engaged with stakeholders.

  1. Program staff had the necessary knowledge and skills.
  2. Senior department and agency executives supported the programs.
  3. End users and stakeholders were involved in the development of requirements.
  4. End users participated in testing of system functionality prior to formal end user acceptance testing.
  5. Government and contractor staff were consistent and stable.
  6. Program staff prioritized requirements.
  7. Program officials maintained regular communication with the prime contractor.
  8. Programs received sufficient funding.

Procurements fail when we fail to integrate the full team into critical success factors from the very beginning. We have a combined three quarters of a century in federal business and can readily identify issues that adversely affect IT program success and align with key critical success factors.

First, we have to abandon the adversarial relationship between government and industry in procurements. Procurement improvement cannot occur without trust, understanding, honesty and cooperation. Second, we have to embrace the life cycle aspect of procurement and use FAR Part 15 to our mutual advantage. Even in agencies exempt from the FAR, we still need to do this. Third, on the industry side we need to behave like mission partners and stop protesting every time we feel offended by what usually are reasonable decisions by our federal counterparts. Fourth, and also on the industry side, we have to stop hiding the truth from our government counterparts in terms of cost, schedule, and execution. Fifth, we never seem to embrace the shared objective of a successful procurement that meets mission needs or mission support needs. Sixth, we rarely are realists. We plan for everything to go according to plan, and we never see that happen. Seventh, we government and industry program managers both have to manage to the contract and when we don’t both have to accept the consequences together.

Let’s get back on track

The first thing we need is communication. When government and industry representatives come together in the ritual of federal procurement, government reps must resist blaming contractors unnecessarily for procurement shortcomings. Additionally, contractors need to push back when they hear politicians and journalists portray government employees as less than stellar workers and managers. We need to stand together as a government/industry team committed to solving problems and share collectively the responsibility for procurement improvement.

We must collaborate to make incremental progress on issues important to each side. We need to commit to moving forward with a goal of open communications and agree to establish agency-level working groups composed of government and industry stakeholders who want to make small improvements in the process and then share these improvements broadly across government agencies.

Why improvement is better than reform

If we can improve the efficacy of federal IT procurement, everyone wins. Making incremental progress helps preserve the decades of work that have created the government procurement processes. We avoid unnecessary distractions that call for wholesale replacement of the federal procurement process.

As we make these small improvements, we know the government can and will get the right products and services procured in less time, with less procurement effort, and fewer protest delays. Contractors can make better, more informed decisions about what to bid, the cost of pursuing procurements and preparing proposals can come down, and the burden on the taxpayer lessens with measurable gains in efficiency and effectiveness.

CIOs in the lead

The testimony also reminds us, “Additionally, the E-Government Act of 2002 established a CIO Council, which is led by the Federal CIO, to be the principal interagency forum for improving agency practices related to the development, acquisition, and management of information resources, including sharing best practices.” For procurement improvement success we need true leaders. We need the capable, honest, committed people from agency leadership teams across all functions to create a vision of collaborative improvement program by program until we get it accomplished. But most of all within IT, we need agency CIOs to take the lead and move away from policy toward effective programmatic achievement and become the drivers of a movement that starts with the life cycle and generates a team of truly committed individuals, organizations, and companies.

Measuring success

We can establish some simple criteria for success and begin to move away from the emblems of failure. A few simple sign posts tell us if success is in the offing or if we are off track. Here are some first-order qualitative but important measures.

  • We become mission-oriented teams dedicated to successful procurements.
  • Government and industry leaders identify priority areas for improvement.
  • Government CIOs join industry in discussion and we find real areas for rapid improvement.
  • We share what we accomplish broadly across agencies and create an annual symposium to honor those in government who have participated and share their accomplishments.
  • We build case studies of success, allowing us to establish true performance and execution baselines that can be replicated.

Next steps

The Association of Proposal Management Professionals (APMP) endorses this concept of incremental change and has formed a Procurement Improvement Committee (PIC) to encourage more open dialogue between industry and government to facilitate constructive working sessions for incremental improvement. As an educational association, APMP does not represent the interests of any single company nor does it lobby for legislative change. This makes the association the right organization to spearhead a procurement improvement initiative that can work.

Reprinted/posted with permission from Government CIO