What’s the future of IT acquisition?

One of the many things on the plate of Jared Kushner’s new Office of American Innovation is acquisition reform. Angela Styles, former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator and current chairwoman of the Crowell and Moring law firm, said before the office gets started, it should examine the mistakes of past attempts at acquisition reform.

“I actually think there’s a lot left to reform, whether it’s IT or general acquisition,” Styles told the Federal Drive with Tom Temin. “It’s actually become more complicated to buy than easier to buy. In some ways, I think we need to look back to the original Clinton changes and go back to what was intended there and make it easier for federal employees to access the marketplace.”

She said reforms that set out to provide more flexibilities and discretion to contracting officers instead wound up leveling so many requirements on them that it’s harder to buy now than it was 10 years ago.

And legislation from Congress, like the Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act, hasn’t helped much, she said.

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“It’s hard to tell whether Congress knows what they’re doing when they legislate how you should buy,” she said. “And I know they intended to give greater flexibilities to CIOs, but it hasn’t really been fully implemented, and I think it’s a question of ‘does Congress know what they’re doing when they implement that?’”

The federal government is the largest purchaser in the world, and it may simply be too big to treat as a single entity when it comes to acquisition, Styles said.

“What’s right for the Department of Veterans Affairs and what’s right for the Department of the Interior may be two different things,” she said.

Styles thinks category management is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to overcomplicated reforms.

“It’s not even written in English,” she said.

It hasn’t been the best route for purchasing or providing agencies with flexibility, she said, because no one really understands what it’s trying to achieve.

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There ought to be some sort of tension between centralization and agency flexibility, she said. And category management was a move toward centralization, but agencies never got a real explanation how it would benefit them or the taxpayers.

Not to mention it made it difficult for small businesses to compete for contracts on things like office supplies. This was one of the reasons DoD doesn’t even participate in category management anymore.

Styles said one of the best things OAI could do as far as reforming acquisition goes is to eliminate the restrictions on commercial items. Instead, she said, it should be more like the private sector, where these things are simply ordered on Amazon.

“How many requirements do we have to put on pricing for commercial items?” she asked. “These are commercial items, right? We should be able to figure out the price that’s reasonable.”

That’s what average consumers do every day when they shop, so contracting officers should be capable of doing it as well, if it’s made that simple for them.

“I think they feel overburdened by the regulations at this point,” Styles said. “They know the system, they know how to make this work right. But I think over a couple of decades, instead of making it easier, whether through Congress or regulations, it’s made it harder and harder for people to do what is innately figuring out what is the right thing to buy for the taxpayer to get the mission done.”