Inside the Reporter’s Notebook: A deeper focus on strategic sourcing, boosting acquisition and cyber workforces

Welcome to my new feature, “Inside the Reporter’s Notebook,” where every two weeks I’ll dispatch news and information you may have missed or that slipped through the cracks at conferences, hearings and the like.

This is neither a column nor commentary. It’s news tidbits, strongly sourced buzz and other items of interest that have happened or are happening in the federal IT and acquisition communities. As always, I encourage you to submit ideas, suggestions, and, of course, news to me at

The unspoken theme of the 2013 Acquisition Excellence “training and education” conference was strategic sourcing.

Nearly every session included a mention of the government’s need to “buy as one customer” and take advantage of volume discounts.


And no agency is more committed to using strategic sourcing than the Homeland Security Department.

Mike Smith, the director of the agency’s strategic sourcing office, said DHS saved $380 million in 2012 and has a goal of saving at least $250 million this year. Since 2006, DHS has saved more than $1.6 billion by improving how it buys goods and services.

Smith said DHS is working on 12 new strategic sourcing initiatives, including buying ammunition, language services, human-resources technology and multiple software titles.

While DHS is ahead of most agencies, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy is pushing the others to catch up.

Jack Kelly, a senior policy analyst at OFPP, said there was a meeting at the White House earlier in the week where the Strategic Sourcing Leadership Council (SSLC) decided which agency will lead which initiative. The SSLC is supposed to give OMB recommendations by March 31 on what commodity areas to go after and how they will do it.

But Kelly also was frank about the challenges that lay ahead to really get the impact from strategic sourcing the administration is looking for.

“The data sources we have available to us basically fall into a handful. You’ve got the Federal Procurement Data System. I’ve looked at the Product Service Code-level data to find out the quality of the data. And the quality sucks,” he said. “And it sucks because what we haven’t done is thought about data holistically. Where does it start? If it isn’t right going into the system, it’s not going to be right when you summarize it.”

OMB has been trying to address data quality issues for a long time and most recently issued a memo in May 2011 requiring agencies to improve the accuracy of their data in FPDS. But almost two years later, improvements have been slow.

“When we start working on a particular initiative, we pull together subject-matter experts and acquisition professionals and other people to start validating what the data says,” Smith said. “Often we find the data at the macro level is not correct. But let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. We may have enough data to make a reasonable business decision on how to move forward with a particular strategy.”

Smith said many times DHS data gets better as the agency looks further into the product or service it wants to buy in bulk.

Interestingly, agencies continue to give the impact of strategic sourcing on small businesses a positive spin. Recent examples, for instance under offices supplies, show the percentage of dollars going to small businesses is higher than what small firms won through the General Services Administration schedule. But there are also 90 percent fewer small firms in the mix to compete under the office-supplies strategic sourcing blanket purchase agreement than under the schedule. So competition is limited and market forces are impinged.

As baseball inches closer to opening day and players get sent down to the minors, the Customs and Border Protection directorate at DHS is getting its farm system in order in a different way.

One of the most buoyant presentations at the Acquisition Excellence conference was by Mark Borkowski, CBP’s assistant commissioner for the Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition.

Borkowski, who has taken his fair share of lumps over the Secure Border Initiative-Net (SBI-Net) program that crashed, was one of the most dynamic speakers of the day, highlighting how CBP is ensuring its acquisition workforce pipeline is strong.

Borkowski said he started reviewing smaller programs on a more regular basis and found that his “minor league” program managers are learning the ropes and could be ready to move up to the majors soon.

“We have great people who work on smaller programs, less than $200,000, and my goal is to bring those people up so they can work on larger projects,” he said. “They are really smart, have good instincts and are innovative, but may need some help on the finer points of acquisition.”

As part of their training, CBP sends teams of 10 program managers to the field to talk to border patrol agents and others. Borkowski said the goal is for these GS 9-to-11 employees to get a sense of their impact in the field and figure out how to improve the agency’s processes.

Borkowski’s approach to ensuring his major leagues are well stocked in the future is something every agency is struggling with.

Joe Jordan, the OFPP administrator, said 40 percent of the 36,000 contracting officers, known as 1102s, are eligible to retire in the next five years. He said the rest fall evenly between those with four years or fewer of experience and those with between five and 20 years of experience.

“What do we do to build and maintain a robust workforce? It’s really a paradigm shift. This is not a business-as-usual, slight tweaking problem. It’s a full rethink of how we develop, how we recruit and retain a high quality acquisition workforce,” he said. “We need to widen the aperture of who we recruit. I don’t just need people who are coming out of contracting programs and want to get in this. I want anyone who is smart and has an attitude to get stuff done and wants to serve. This is the show. We spent half a trillion dollars every year through prime contracts.”

To that end, GSA and OFPP signed a new service-level agreement to improve how the Federal Acquisition Institute works to train civilian contracting employees.

Sources say the agreement implements provisions in the Federal Acquisitions Improvement Act, which became law as part of the 2012 Defense Authorization act.

GSA put out a release, saying the SLA will “strengthen their cooperation and commitment to delivering training to the civilian acquisition workforce through FAI,” but offered no details on what the SLA will address. When asked, they pointed requests back to OFPP.

“Developing our civilian acquisition workforce is one of my top priorities,” Jordan said in an email. “The Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) has accomplished much in the last year, both increasing the quality of our training and expanding the ways in which we deliver the content. GSA is uniquely qualified to provide the day-to-day management of FAI, so this agreement will ensure that FAI is able to meet the needs of the acquisition community in the years ahead.”

OK, that clears it up then….

Six cybersecurity hearings over the last few weeks have led many to believe Congress may actually get something done this session.

But the House and Senate remain heading down different paths. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee passed the Federal Information Security Management Amendments Act of 2013 on March 20 to update the 11-year-old law. Lawmakers in the lower chamber remain on the piecemeal path to cybersecurity.

Some members of the Senate, meanwhile, continue to push for comprehensive cyber legislation.

As the debate on Capitol Hill picks up, the Defense Department is close to releasing several guiding documents for its cyber operations.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the Joint Staff is getting ready to issue its first ever document covering cyber doctrine as well as the long-awaited rules of engagement for military commanders.

DoD also is beefing up its cyber workforce.

Gen. Keith Alexander, the head of the U.S. Cyber Command and the director of the National Security Agency, told committee members he sat down with the National Guard’s leadership to talk about their roles and responsibilities in cyberspace.

“There are two key things that they can do. First, by setting up protection platoons and teams and training them to the same standard as the active force, it gives us additional capacity that we may need in a cyber conflict,” Alexander said. “The second part is it also provides us an ability to work with the states, with the Joint Terrorism Task Force and cyber forces that the FBI and DHS have to provide additional technical capacity for resilience and recovery.”

He said the Guard’s leadership agreed to train reservists to the same standards.

Alexander said DoD also is improving the war colleges’ curriculum around cyber.

“We are working with the Defense Intelligence Agency on setting up a cyber mid-grade course for field-grade officers, the young 03s, 04s we have. We have a series of courses that we have for our folks and for the combatant command staffs to understand cyber,” he said. “One of the great parts about having Cyber Command at NSA is that we can leverage the academic capabilities of NSA with the military, working together to ensure we have the courses that both our civilian and military people go through.”

And speaking of NSA and the Cyber Command as one unit, Alexander said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is reviewing whether to make the Cyber Command a unified combatant command. It now reports through U.S. Strategic Command.

“Right now it’s just in the discussion phases,” Alexander said. “The new secretary has to look at it and I know that will take some time and they will bring it back [to Congress].”

Out and About

With Congress on spring break, it’s going to be a quiet week around Washington. The Bethesda chapter of AFCEA holds its 15th annual Children’s Inn Gala in Washington. and the National Academy of Public Administration hosts an