Another View: The procurement train is leaving the platform

Bob Welch

A quiet revolution, fueled both by the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act and by acquisition work force realities, is transforming the way government buys. The view'long held by the procurement community'that contracting is an inherently governmental function is beginning to crumble.

Agencies are contracting out contracting. An increasing number are listing contracting activities on their FAIR Act inventories as noninherently governmental functions. In fact, I am aware of several agencies that have proceeded with competitive sourcing for segments of their procurement functions, such as contract specialist, procurement policy analyst, and procurement management review and assessment. Others have used the so-called direct conversion authority of Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 to outsource services.

The types of work and methods of contracting vary. Some agencies use staff augmentation contracts'that is, time-and-materials or labor hour contracts'to perform administrative functions. Others contract out for staff support or for specific periods of heavy workloads or to help with procurement shop backlogs.

But not all contracting out of the contracting functions involves low-level staff augmentation. Agencies are also beginning to ask contractors to provide new ways for them to do business.

In these situations, the government can be the winner. What a good acquisition support contractor can bring is a work force experienced with many agencies, not only in providing assistance but also in solving problems, applying previously used, successful best practices, and innovating new processes and techniques.

Plus, the contractor has more flexibility to deliver just-in-time skills from experts who are not needed full time. All of these capabilities can help broaden the solution set and perspective of the agency contracting shop. The contractor can facilitate change while performing and then transforming the contracting functions.

This transformation is essential. If not taken up by agency procurement executives, it will soon be taken out of their hands. I base this on four key change indicators.

First, there was OMB's replacement of the Procurement Executives Council with the Federal Acquisition Council, with a somewhat different membership. Second, there is the proposed Services Acquisition Reform Act provision for noncareer, politically appointed chief acquisition officers. Third, the General Accounting Office started to assess the strengths and weaknesses of agencies' procurement processes and to identify opportunities for improvements.

And fourth, but certainly not least, are the comments of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, in March: 'Improvements to the federal procurement system and agency reorganization legislation could lead to billions of dollars in savings for the government and taxpayers.'

Billions? Carl Sagan said it best: 'Evolve or die.' It applies to the way the government buys.

Bob Welch, formerly a federal senior procurement executive, is a partner at Acquisition Solutions Inc., www.acquisitionsolutions.com, of Oakton, Va.

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