Inside the Reporter's Notebook: A deeper focus on strategic sourcing, boosting acquisition and cyber workforces

Friday - 3/22/2013, 7:38pm EDT

Welcome to my new feature, "Inside the Reporter's Notebook," where every two weeks I'll dispatch news and information you may have missed or that slipped through the cracks at conferences, hearings and the like.

This is neither a column nor commentary. It's news tidbits, strongly sourced buzz and other items of interest that have happened or are happening in the federal IT and acquisition communities. As always, I encourage you to submit ideas, suggestions, and, of course, news to me at

The unspoken theme of the 2013 Acquisition Excellence "training and education" conference was strategic sourcing.

Nearly every session included a mention of the government's need to "buy as one customer" and take advantage of volume discounts.

And no agency is more committed to using strategic sourcing than the Homeland Security Department.

Mike Smith, the director of the agency's strategic sourcing office, said DHS saved $380 million in 2012 and has a goal of saving at least $250 million this year. Since 2006, DHS has saved more than $1.6 billion by improving how it buys goods and services.

Smith said DHS is working on 12 new strategic sourcing initiatives, including buying ammunition, language services, human-resources technology and multiple software titles.

While DHS is ahead of most agencies, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy is pushing the others to catch up.

Jack Kelly, a senior policy analyst at OFPP, said there was a meeting at the White House earlier in the week where the Strategic Sourcing Leadership Council (SSLC) decided which agency will lead which initiative. The SSLC is supposed to give OMB recommendations by March 31 on what commodity areas to go after and how they will do it.

But Kelly also was frank about the challenges that lay ahead to really get the impact from strategic sourcing the administration is looking for.

"The data sources we have available to us basically fall into a handful. You've got the Federal Procurement Data System. I've looked at the Product Service Code-level data to find out the quality of the data. And the quality sucks," he said. "And it sucks because what we haven't done is thought about data holistically. Where does it start? If it isn't right going into the system, it's not going to be right when you summarize it."

OMB has been trying to address data quality issues for a long time and most recently issued a memo in May 2011 requiring agencies to improve the accuracy of their data in FPDS. But almost two years later, improvements have been slow.

"When we start working on a particular initiative, we pull together subject-matter experts and acquisition professionals and other people to start validating what the data says," Smith said. "Often we find the data at the macro level is not correct. But let's not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We may have enough data to make a reasonable business decision on how to move forward with a particular strategy."

Smith said many times DHS data gets better as the agency looks further into the product or service it wants to buy in bulk.

Interestingly, agencies continue to give the impact of strategic sourcing on small businesses a positive spin. Recent examples, for instance under offices supplies, show the percentage of dollars going to small businesses is higher than what small firms won through the General Services Administration schedule. But there are also 90 percent fewer small firms in the mix to compete under the office-supplies strategic sourcing blanket purchase agreement than under the schedule. So competition is limited and market forces are impinged.

As baseball inches closer to opening day and players get sent down to the minors, the Customs and Border Protection directorate at DHS is getting its farm system in order in a different way.

One of the most buoyant presentations at the Acquisition Excellence conference was by Mark Borkowski, CBP's assistant commissioner for the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

Borkowski, who has taken his fair share of lumps over the Secure Border Initiative-Net (SBI-Net) program that crashed, was one of the most dynamic speakers of the day, highlighting how CBP is ensuring its acquisition workforce pipeline is strong.

Borkowski said he started reviewing smaller programs on a more regular basis and found that his "minor league" program managers are learning the ropes and could be ready to move up to the majors soon.