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Agencies Need to Take More Risks in Acquisition

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The recently released president’s management agenda states that efforts to transform government through major acquisitions are hamstrung by processes that “remain captive to a risk-averse culture that rewards compliance over creativity.”

No wonder. The Federal Acquisition Regulation contains a mind-numbing 1,917 pages of policies and procedures that government acquisition officials must follow when buying goods and services. Navigating these rules can be daunting for contracting officers, who often live in fear of something going wrong.

But even within the constraints, there is room for flexibility—approaches that deviate from the norm but hold potential to achieve better quality and innovative outcomes while preserving competition, transparency and accountability.

Following a path toward innovation requires overcoming the fear of failure and the willingness to take risks within reasonable bounds.

For example, improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, have been a major cause of injury and death in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq since the United States put its personnel on the ground. Enemy combatants can remotely detonate IEDs using cell phones or other electronic devices.

In the early 2000s, Defense Department officials knew existing technologies could block the detonating signals, but they didn’t have signal jamming tools nimble enough to mount on armored vehicles or be worn by soldiers, making it impossible to employ the technology where it was needed. The Pentagon had to act quickly and sought to build upon existing commercial technologies, not start development from scratch.

Turning the usual procurement process on its head, Defense officials conferred with the private sector in advance of putting out a formal bid. The department issued a broad agency announcement, an acquisition tool that supports research and development and allows officials to find private-sector partners to advance testing and analysis rather than generate a particular product.

Defense then awarded simplified contracts for initial testing, scoping competition to those with a demonstrated capacity to meet their needs. The department also hosted industry days that allowed for feedback between the government and the private sector. The collaboration prompted consideration of solutions not previously proposed.

This approach paid off and saved lives. What’s more, continued development and testing during the past decade have generated upgrades to the jamming technology, further reducing IED-related fatalities.

Of course, doing procurement differently doesn’t always mean getting it right. But there are lessons that can be learned from veering outside the norm that can pay benefits down the road.

In one high-profile example, the Homeland Security Department faced unexpected consequences when it attempted to innovate on a $1.5 billion software development initiative to create everything from more streamlined online immigration applications to a more efficient import control system. DHS thought big, attempting to solve problems across the department with a three-year procurement contract it called the Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland, or FLASH.

The procurement team adopted a show me, don’t tell me approach to finding the right private-sector partners, requiring contractors to deliver working software in lieu of a traditional written narrative proposal. When more than 100 companies bid on the massive contract, things got out of hand, and numerous protests were filed by the losing bidders.

“[W]e went way too big with FLASH, way too quickly,” wrote Eric Hysen, who served an 18-month tour of duty as executive director for DHS’s Digital Service.

Inconsistent evaluation of the bids led to bid protests. And technical talent to evaluate the bids was in short supply. DHS canceled FLASH.

“But this work couldn’t be more important,” Hysen said. “If the government is ever going to stop wasting billions on technology and delivering sub-par citizen services, future acquisitions need to learn the lessons of what worked from FLASH and other early efforts, fix what didn’t, and keep iterating until they get it right.”

One lesson learned is that government needs to adopt innovative purchasing methods like the governmentwide blanket purchase agreement, which allows agencies to keep up with the rapid development of new technologies by finding and pre-vetting vendors with demonstrated abilities in agile delivery.

It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s painful when the plans go awry. But government must embrace new ways of acquiring goods and services, and work collaboratively with the private sector to solve difficult and pressing problems. If we want an innovative society and solutions to tackle some of our biggest national challenges, we need an innovative and entrepreneurial government.

Meroe Park is the Partnership for Public Service’s executive vice president, overseeing the organization’s programs and its work with federal agencies.

Ben Marglin is a principal/director at Booz Allen Hamilton in the Strategic Innovation Group specializing in digital strategy, IT modernization and acquisition.

For ongoing discussion around federal acquisition, visit Booz Allen and the Partnership for Public Service and follow online at #PoweringGov.

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