What if the Problem Isn’t the Rules, but the People?

When it comes to acquiring new digital technology, acquisition regulations aren’t really the issue.

One school of thought holds that the rules and regulations governing the federal acquisition process are so byzantine that the government simply can’t get access to the latest technology in a timely fashion.

But what if the problem isn’t the rules, but the people who must work within them?

At an event in Washington on Tuesday, the National Academy of Public Administration and ICF International unveiled the results of their Federal Leaders Digital Insight Study. Among the subjects covered in the survey of senior federal leaders was the technology acquisition system.

The study found that while there certainly are problems in buying and implementing the latest technology in government, “many federal leaders believe that these problems are the result of execution of the procurement process rather than regulatory requirements.” While nearly 40 percent of the more than 500 survey respondents had some influence in the procurement process, only one of them cited problems with the Federal Acquisition Regulation in written comments.

“The FAR isn’t always the main hurdle,” said Beth Cobert, deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, at the event. “The processes really need to be tackled.”

“One hundred page [requests for proposals] for relatively small pieces of work are not helpful,” Cobert added.

Survey respondents likewise listed slow acquisition processes among their top barriers to effectively upgrading technology (behind security and privacy concerns and budget constraints).

“We are able to acquire innovative technologies,” one respondent to the survey wrote, “but it’s not always very easy to do so, and a risk-adverse culture in the agency can also be an obstacle.”

Those aren’t problems with rules, but with people and the processes they create. And for the processes to improve, the people have to take action.

OMB is trying to help them by, among other things, issuing TechFAR, a guide to using existing procurement regulations to buy better technology systems more quickly. But clearly, such efforts aren’t working yet. Only 21 percent of survey respondents think buying practices are keeping up with the pace of technological change, and only 15 percent report that their agencies are on par with the private sector in terms of making technology available to employees.

Changing that situation doesn’t require an act of Congress. It may not even require a cash infusion, since better use of existing procurement authorities would presumably give agencies more bang for the buck. What it requires is that agencies hire the right acquisition employees, train them and give them the tools they need, and then hold them accountable for creating and maintaining processes that work effectively.

(Image via bikeriderlondon/

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