3 Myths That Cripple Acquisition: No. 2 Reforming Acquisition Will Fix It

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This column is the second in a series about three myths that hamper government’s ability to modernize its acquisition process.

“The way government buys technology uses horse-and-buggy era budgeting and Cold War era processes,” a government industry leader said in a recent interview.

This isn’t far from the truth. The federal procurement system was built to fit the Industrial Age. In fact, our entire national system is anchored in an Industrial Age manufacturing model. Of course, this worked well at the time, but the world has moved on and it is now obstructing national innovation, competition and progress.

We’ve entered a new era—the Collaboration Age—and it is profoundly different.

We see the global impacts and feel the changes in our everyday lives. We live in a world of mobility, integration, connectedness, data analysis, shared information and distributed power. And yet, federal agencies are riddled with stovepipes, hierarchy and linear, slow, information-poor processes. Acquisition is encumbered by excessive oversight, starved for data and, understandably, locked into an assembly-line mentality.

To believe we can drive the results we desire by incrementally modifying the old model fails to acknowledge that it no longer exists.

Acquisition reform simply won’t work.

Futurist Don Tapscott, with whom I worked at Digital 4sight in 1999, notes that the Collaboration Age is marked by openness that is driven by powerful, global dynamics. His enumeration of the dynamics of this new age in an insightful and inspiring  2012 TED talk, “4 Principles for the Open World,” can help us understand the gravity of the change that is upon us and the scale of the shift we must undertake. For example, he noted that:

  • The digital revolution enables us to upload information, ask questions and make purchases on the Internet; in essence, every Internet interaction programs a universal computer that now allows us to seamlessly connect across boundaries and collaborate globally.  In tandem, remarkable and revolutionary capabilities are emerging, including 3-D printing, Google Glass, and online markets for ideas and innovations. These developments are forever changing the way we think, live and work.

  • The rise of “digital natives,” the first generation to grow up awash in technology and constant interconnection, is changing our institutions. This generation expects and demands transparent communication; ubiquitous personal technology; full participation; joint creation; and fast, trust-based online transactions. 

  • Social media is becoming a means of social production—think Challenge.gov, Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir and crowdsourcing. The digital revolution’s tools are creating unprecedented transparency that is rendering public and private organizations “naked,” forcing them to deliver ever greater value and to live their values.

Increasingly, Americans want to be active consumers and citizens—determining what value they want and co-creating the information, services and goods they desire. Citizens are demanding open government data and a seat at the governing table. The days of passive consumption and communities are gone.

What we must realize is that acquisition is not aligned with these new dynamics because our government and national system are not. Now, we can buy directly from sellers online, promote marketplace accountability between vendors and buyers through online ratings, build lightweight software and quickly prototype, wear computers, collect and analyze vast amounts of data in real time to support decision-making, and create complex products by printing them. The hierarchical, control-based, highly regulated federal operating paradigm is a remnant of a bygone era.

We’ve attempted to fix Industrial Age acquisition by layering regulation upon regulation and adding more oversight and controls on federal professionals and their industry partners. But this treatment is based on a misdiagnosis—that something is missing from the old system instead of a recognition that the environment is evolving into something entirely different. The result is not advancement, but rather a stultifying, innovation-hobbling, fear-based culture.

Government and its industry partners need digital era expertise, approaches and solutions. Contracting professionals must be developed, encouraged and allowed to be collaborative, creative, agile thinkers and market makers. Otherwise, they will be unable to attract the best companies to bid on government work, craft contracts to support the most advanced solutions, lure the best talent, engage effectively with industry partners or pay appropriate prices.

We must acknowledge that our efforts to cope through reform have fallen short because, although the problems appear to be the same, the root causes are actually different and so today’s solutions must also be different. To advance acquisition outcomes, we must view our challenges through a new lens and apply new thinking, innovative technologies, emerging models and the energy of a new generation.

Instead of continuing to revise models from the past, we must envision the future and drive toward it.

The dynamics are already in play. The change is here. The transformation is happening and progress will continue with or without our involvement. Only by embracing and participating in this fundamental shift will our acquisition community and our country realize the benefits of the age we’re in.

Next in this series—Myth No. 3: Envisioning the Future Is a Waste of Time

Kymm McCabe is chief executive officer of ASI Government, which provides support, research, education, news and online tools to federal acquisition professionals at more than 130 agencies. Read about more ASI ideas here.

(Image via Artco/Shutterstock.com)

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