Inside the world's biggest buyer

Monday - 6/11/2012, 5:31am EDT

The federal government has spent almost a billion dollars on lumber, plywood, millwork and veneer so far this year.

Agencies shelled out another $4 billion on books, maps and other publications.

And they spent another $883 million on railway equipment in fiscal 2012.

This is all on top of the $500 billion spent on tens of thousands of other products and services ranging from IT to food preparation and serving, to explosives to lighting fixtures and lamps.

Basically, if someone sells it, the government probably buys it.

The federal government takes more than $1 trillion a year to operate and nearly half of its operating budget is spent on the acquisition of goods and services — more than $1 out of every $6 agencies spend goes to contractors.

So just how good is the world's biggest buyer? All this week Federal News Radio will try to answer that simple question in a five-part multimedia special report, Inside the World's Biggest Buyer.

Federal acquisition spending has increased to more than $535 billion in fiscal 2011 from about $200 billion in 2000, according to the Office of Management and Budget. And with that huge increase, the complaints, the examples of waste, fraud and abuse, and overall problems have become more prevalent.

Congress, executive branch political leadership and career federal managers all agree: federal acquisition needs to be a lot more efficient and effective.

But just looking at the last three years, the White House and lawmakers have used a slew of executive orders, policy memoranda and legislation to reform acquisition — leaving the reform process to become messy and uncoordinated.

The Obama administration has led efforts to improve contracting on several fronts: reducing high-risk acquisitions such as time-and-materials or labor hours type contracts, reducing management support services deals and trying to take advantage of the size of the government through strategic sourcing.

Congress, not to be left out, also has been trying to take on problem areas, such as contingency contracting, the amount of money going to small businesses and the ongoing need to improve the acquisition workforce.

Each day this week, we will try to address a different aspect of acquisition, starting Monday with agency procurement and the challenges around everything from developing requirements to hiring the best vendors to managing the vendors after the initial award.

Part 1: Agency Acquisition

On Monday, we talk to Mary Armstead, the program director of the National Institutes of Health IT Acquisition and Assessment Center. NIH recently awarded its third generation governmentwide acquisition contract (GWAC), called CIO-SP3. Armstead explains how the environment for GWACs has changed over the last decade.

We also, for the first time, bring together former administrators of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy — Steve Kelman and Al Burman — to discuss how buying has become more complex amid a partisan environment and what can be done to improve it across the government.

A contracts administrator at the Los Alamos National Laboratory explains in one of our special columns, how the Defense Department's Rapid Acquisition Program provides speedy capabilities to warfighters.

Meanwhile, former deputy undersecretary of Defense for Industrial Affairs Steve Grundman provides his perspective on how the Better Buying Power initiative has shaped defense procurement.

Plus, the Government Accountability Office's controller and administrative services officer, discusses the ways GAO helps agencies get the most out of the acquisition process.

Senior Correspondent Mike Causey provides his own take on the world of federal acquisition in the first of two special columns.

And finally, we take an in-depth look at strategic sourcing and the detrimental impact some small firms say it's having on their businesses.

Part 2: Acquisition Workforce

New OFPP Administrator Joe Jordan, in his first interview since being confirmed, discusses the top priorities of his new role, including building up the federal acquisition workforce and "buying smarter."

The General Services Administration's Steve Kempf, the commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service, explains how agencies are taking a more disciplined approach to managing vendors through the use of a special survey.

Plus, National Defense University professors Andy Gravatt, chairman of the Systems and Technology Department, and Dr. Russ Mattern, a professor in the same organization, discuss how they are improving the training for Defense Department 1102s.

You'll also get a first-ever look at how DoD and State Department employees managed the transition of power in Iraq — one of the largest overseas logistical operations since World War II. We talk with DoD's Gary Motsek and State's Catherine Ebert-Gray, the two people who led the transition in the special section Trial by Fire: Overseas Contracting in Transition.