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Transforming Acquisition for the Future

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The recent series of columns “3 Myths That Cripple Acquisition” stressed that acquisition transformation, not just reform, is critical to enable the federal government to effectively lead in the Collaboration Age.  Now it’s time to chart a course forward toward such transformation.

The expectation that government and acquisition should be zero-defect enterprises undermines innovation and constrains transformation by requiring layers of oversight and generating risk aversion. We need a national discussion about accepting risk to achieve value across government—especially in acquisition—just as we accept risk in our daily lives.  By accepting appropriate risk, we can take advantage of the opportunities for increasing results, connectivity and speed in the Collaboration Age.

Key stakeholders in government, industry and academia can join together to create a space for envisioning a future state of acquisition built on openness, collaboration, technology adoption, instant communication, shared information and social connection.

A Transformation Guide

During the past several months a growing number of government executives, acquisition professionals, academic partners, associations and industry leaders have worked in partnership to create the Acquisition of the Future movement. Supporters of the movement will soon publish a transformation guide intended to provide a common language and goals for Collaboration Age acquisition as well as strategies for moving forward and measuring progress. The guide will be released on an open, collaborative platform designed to elicit feedback and discussion.

There is no single “right way” to move ahead, but Acquisition of the Future lays out a clear direction. The guide will help leaders identify the most appropriate targets, trajectory and velocity for their specific situation and organization. The guide is purposely descriptive—not prescriptive—to provide organizations with options that they find applicable and useful. 

It will illustrate five critical dimensions of transformation:

  • Buyers, both at the individual level and governmentwide
  • Marketplace, where buyers and sellers come together physically or virtually
  • Acquisition ecosystem, which encompasses the how of acquisition—not just procurement, but also programs, agency leadership, financial management and information technology
  • Culture, which embodies and guides all stakeholders
  • External forces, which support, oversee, benefit from and advocate for acquisition, including legal partners, oversight organizations and legislators

Moving to the Collaboration Age

In acquisition, and in government as a whole, these dimensions look very different when designed for Industrial Age dynamics rather than Collaboration Age possibilities.

Much of government is a vestige of the Industrial Age. Agencies continue to focus on inputs (budget) and processes (inspecting imported food versus improving growing practices in exporting countries).  In contrast, the Collaboration Age requires a focus on outcomes and compels faster and better value delivery (think Amazon Prime and 3-D printed products). Government too often relies on heavy, paper-laden, processes, as opposed to approaches that are lightweight, as-a-service, ubiquitous, immediately accessible and empowered through collaboration.

Many federal organizations have their own data siloed in protected databases and build knowledge portals to help organize and access that siloed information. They continue to create and maintain discrete IT systems to support their workforces, manage finances, run procurements and perform administrative functions. There is a better way.

Imagine the explosive power of liberating resources and people to focus directly on mission delivery. Imagine the incredible impact on results and costs if acquisition were delivered as a shared service by a few centers of excellence to many federal agencies. Imagine if governmentwide procurement data were collected, analyzed and shared seamlessly and securely for the benefit of the whole.

In a world where data, as well as acquisition policy and socioeconomic goals, could augment human expertise to effectively acquire goods and services, tremendous savings and effort could be redirected to achieving better outcomes.  Able to leave the mechanics of purchasing to skilled buyers and strategically sourced contracts, government could attend to higher order acquisition questions, such as the market research necessary to identify innovations and improve capabilities. 

The First Steps

Achieving such a future requires strategic choices today. In a Collaboration Age framework, buyers will apply new approaches and business models by leveraging deeper understanding of technologies and how they affect requirements. Federal programs will harness fast-changing market dynamics and methods to develop new capabilities, building stronger and more open relationships with suppliers and harvesting internal and external innovation.

Achieving this kind of buyer sophistication means that acquisition professionals—no matter where they sit in an agency—need new kinds of preparation and training. Artificial intelligence and cognitive computing can enable a new kind of acquisition decision support, prompting a relook at how agencies collect and share data. Almost any vision of acquisition’s future includes some reform of procurement regulations and policies, enabling a focus on outcomes and reducing time spent on process oversight.

By allowing agencies to take a risk management approach in their acquisition, as opposed to one based on risk reduction, the federal marketplace could foster a more robust supplier base. We can make choices now that could transform a market in which few providers expend significant effort to adapt to federal procurement rules and many simply don’t compete because they perceive the burdens to be too great.

To move from the current condition to this future market would foster increased creativity in buying, perhaps requiring an open business model built on open architecture. Government and industry leaders can begin taking action today to enable this evolution by expanding nascent efforts at reform that are already allowing small steps forward. Examples include the Defense Department’s introduction of an app store for the ground control systems of unmanned aerial vehicles and the General Services Administration’s use of annotation technology to allow crowdsourcing in developing requirements for drafting requests for proposal. 

To create the agile culture that can support acquisition transformation, some agencies might need to transform their approach to innovation. Infusing incentives for innovation throughout the acquisition process might become standard operating procedure. Agencies might even regularly co-create with their suppliers and with other nongovernment organizations. But this won’t happen overnight— it will take dedicated resources and deliberate choices.

Such actions can bring an enormous payoff. Once government moves away from focusing on the internal machinery to support mission delivery, agencies can get on with the business of using the machine to improve mission outcomes. They can focus not on building redundant technology systems, but on equipping the acquisition workforce with technology to make hard decisions, engage with citizens and internal customers, and deliver better value. The acquisition community has many innovators who want to improve outcomes for their agencies and the nation, and are starting to take steps toward that end. Acquisition of the Future aims to provide a framework for sharing and expanding such innovations.

Join the Conversation

In the coming months, the Acquisition of the Future Transformation Guide will be made available for public review and comment.  Acquisition leaders at every level in government, industry and academia will be able to use it to spur conversations that fill in the vision of acquisition’s future. The guide will be online and open for annotation, so users can add to it their own effective practices, lessons learned and observations. It will become a living, evolving roadmap.

Transforming acquisition for a new age will take more than just a village. It will take a broad range of stakeholders inside and outside government and leaders from every branch and agency. We invite all who share these goals to join the movement here so they can participate in building the Acquisition of the Future vision and making it a reality.

Kymm McCabe is chief executive officer of ASI Government, which supports federal acquisition professionals, and Dan Chenok is executive director of the IBM Center for The Business of Government

(Image via Ollyy/Shutterstock.com)

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