There is still a significant schizophrenia within the government generally, and particularly in the Defense Department, over the use of commercial items and services. As arcane as this issue might sound, it is actually one of the core lynchpins to the government's ability to drive innovation and gain access the best solutions from the broadest possible array of providers. In other words, arcane or not, it really matters.
For two years in a row, DOD asked Congress for legislation to dramatically change the statutory definition of a commercial item or service. Both times Congress summarily, and wisely, rejected these proposals. Then in early August, DOD issued a proposed procurement rule that would achieve much the same result as the legislative proposal, albeit in a more nuanced way. And Congress noticed.
In early November, more than 50 members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, signed an unusually sharp letter to the department calling for the proposed rule to be rescinded. In their view, the rule is counterproductive and focused on the wrong issues. Moreover, the 2016 defense authorization bill includes language that pushes DOD to rely more on commercial practices, either directly or through their traditional contractors.
The letter is significant. It is highly unusual for such a diverse array of members of Congress to sign such a strongly worded letter on such a "down in the weeds" procurement rule. The fact that they did so suggests that they understand a few things that continue to elude too many in the Defense Department.
First, the department needs to be focused on how to open its competitive aperture, not limit it. Yet that is precisely what the proposed rule would do. Indeed, the proposed rule would be more than just one more disincentive to companies bringing the best of breed commercial solutions to the department. As structured, it would literally make it impossible for many companies to do so.
Second, the real issue the Defense Department needs to deal with — as acknowledged by many senior officials (and repeatedly reflected in surveys of acquisition leaders) — is that its workforce lacks the requisite skills and tools to make the kinds of business decisions the current law and rules expect them to make. Time after time, surveys have shown that senior acquisition officials are deeply concerned, not only by that lack of capability, but also by their assessment that the problem has not improved, even though the rules have been in effect for nearly 20 years. Simply, the workforce has not been afforded the kind of training and education doing so requires. Congress knows this too, as evidenced by language included in the new defense authorization bill.
None of this is entirely new. We have been talking for years about the gaps in workforce training and development that threaten the government's ability to operate effectively in a rapidly changing environment. The government’s acquisition schools, including the Defense Acquisition University, appear to be headed in the right direction by adding new courseware to tackle core issues such as risk and risk mitigation. But it is not nearly enough.
Accessing the full scope of market opportunities and enabling innovation in a market environment as dynamic as the one we live in today demand a far greater sense of urgency. We cannot afford to wait even five more years for new thinking and new skills to emerge. For the existing federal acquisition workforce, we need a no-nonsense, sustained and mandatory education "sprint" that is entirely targeted at commercial business skills. They are already required to get 80 hours of continuous learning every two years. Why not mandate that it be focused on a known, critical learning and skills gap? For new hires, we need a thoroughly redesigned, contemporary professional development plan that best prepares them for the complexities of the procurement world they are entering, as it is and will be, not as it used to be.
DOD is right that there are occasional problems in how they buy, and what they pay for, commercial items or services. But they are wrong to think the answer lies in more restrictive or prescriptive rules. As with any core problem, the answer lies in addressing the root causes. That's the clear message that Congress, in a rare bipartisan spirit, is so strongly sending. It's time for the department to listen. And to act.
Stan Soloway is president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.