Industry group calls on White House, not Congress, to lead acquisition reform efforts

Wednesday - 7/30/2014, 5:16am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD Reporter, Federal News Radio

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Congress is hunting for ideas for its next round of reforms to the defense acquisition system, which leaders hope to package up into a bill for members to vote on by next year. But from the perspective of one major industry group, almost everything that's wrong with acquisition can be fixed without new legislation.

The Professional Services Council's 80-page wish list of changes comes at a time when both the executive and legislative branches are gearing up for another round of updates to the acquisition system and asking for outside input. And while the leaders of some of those reviews have hinted at narrowly-focused changes around the margins rather than a major overhaul, PSC's approach tackles everything from the acquisition workforce to policy changes at every phase of the acquisition lifecycle to reforming bid protests.

"I think the bottom line, in our view, is that the time for tactical or incremental change has long passed," said Stan Soloway, a former Defense deputy undersecretary for acquisition reform who now serves as PSC's president. "The only way we're going to make a meaningful impact is to take very, very, sustained long- term action."

In the view of the 90 IT and service contracting companies that helped assemble the group's report, long-term action would mean voracious oversight and interest on the part of Congress, but not necessarily the passage of a big package of reforms to existing law. Out of 42 recommendations that came out of the review process, only eight would require changes to existing statutes.

The recommendations were heavy on executive branch action, partly by design because of the difficulty of getting anything through Congress at the moment. But they also reflect companies' views that many of the current acquisition problems have more to do with the way agencies interpret the law than how it's written.

No more SOWs

One overarching theme in the report is that the acquisition system needs to transform itself into one that's focused on outcomes, and not necessarily the bureaucratic processes that deliver them.

For example, PSC recommends that the government start using "statements of objectives" as the go-to solicitation method when an agency asks industry to deliver a product, a service or a solution, rather than the current "statements of work" that dominate the procurement landscape today.

"A statement of objectives talks about what you need to achieve. A statement of work tells you what to do. The idea here is when you use a statement of objectives, it gives folks who are bidding the ability to come in and say how they would approach a problem rather than the government specifying in advance how they think the problem needs to be solved," Soloway told reporters Monday. "It's really opening the aperture of thinking and saying, ‘Come give me your best ideas on how you would approach this.'"

That recommendation and several others aim to give commercial industry the ability to offer program managers solutions they might not have known existed. The report also asks agencies to let companies respond to requests for proposals in a way that doesn't precisely follow the strictures within a given RFP, but still gets the job done in ways that allow a company to employ new technology that might come along between the time an award is issued and the end of a contract.

It also suggests the use of a new "innovation template" for every RFP, in which firms could point out specific innovations they could bring to the table but that the government didn't ask for, and how much each one of them would cost.

"This idea about giving industry the opportunity to help give you a better answer scratches so many itches that I see today in industry," said Dave Wennergren, a former DoD assistant deputy chief management officer who now works as PSC's senior vice president for technology policy. "A company will see an RFP and know that they have a better answer, but the government's already boxed them in, and they're afraid to give that answer because they're worried that it will work against them in the evaluation process. If you bring together more ideas, you can do more sharing of risk rather than the government just throwing something over the transom and hoping it gets something back."

Speed to outcomes

The report's authors also said they were placing a premium on letting the government buy technology and services much more quickly, and argued that there is no longer much meaningful distinction between those two categories of government procurement. In the report's terms, "speed to outcomes" needs to be a priority.