Bumper-sticker logic: the four myths of procurement reform

Read this and learn the four myths of procurement reform


A quicker buy isn't necessarily better or Deregulated doesn't equal commercial


Myth is a word with two very different meanings. It can be a story that is not
literally factual but contains a spiritual or emotional truth. A myth, however, can also
be an unfounded belief that obscures the truth.


Procurement reform includes several myths in this latter, harmful vein.


Myth No. 1: Simple is good; simpler is better.


An article of faith for those changing procurement laws is that the process is too
complex and must become much simpler. To be sure, the procurement process, like any
system, needs regular pruning. But is more simplicity always better?


The idea is afoot that complexity itself is the enemy. Pundits bemoan "the death
of common sense" and call for a wholesale dismantling of rules. Others advocate the
same prescription for somewhat different reasons. The controversial book, The Bell
Curve
, concludes that "complications that are only a nuisance to people who are
smart are much more of a barrier to people who are not."


Which view is correct? Will simplicity liberate good judgment or empower the inept? Is
the procurement process being streamlined or just dumbed down?


Some contracting officials can navigate the current system, flaws and all, skillfully.
These experts are intelligent, experienced and well-trained. But many others founder. It
is these untrained contracting workers that drive the simplification program to its
illogical extreme.


Thus, the simpler-is-better school dead-ends in paradox. If acquisition officials are
competent enough, for instance, to choose the best proposal without rules, then why aren't
they savvy enough to handle the current system?


Myth No. 2: Procurement is the keystone to all problems.


Perhaps the most dangerous myth is that reforming the procurement process will solve
all the problems. One anecdote offered by the reinventors is the $100 steam trap that was
bought only in large lots. While agencies waited months for delivery, thousands of dollars
worth of steam was wasted. As those who work in procurement know, this was a logistics
problem and not a contracting issue.


Let's get back to basics: Procurement is about how to buy, not what to buy or when to
buy. Poorly defined requirements and ill-planned programs will thwart progress, no matter
how quickly the contracts are awarded. It won't matter that a federal agency gets the
latest computer equipment if it can't use it properly and intelligently.


Myth No. 3: Deregulation will lead to commercial practices and commercial
efficiencies.


A lot of the current emphasis is on emulating commercial practices. Because the private
sector doesn't have to deal with federal procurement practices, reformers reason that
dismantling them will result in government agencies behaving like the best commercial
companies.


Unfortunately, the reformers have started at the wrong end of the process. Commercial
practices work because they take place in a well-understood system of rewards and
punishments, both institutional and individual. Until civil servants risk pay, promotion
and even their jobs for not meeting goals, and until their agencies have profit-and-loss
statements (or the moral equivalent), mere deregulation will not make things better.


Myth No. 4: Haste avoids waste.


This is a related myth. Everyone thinks the acquisition process is too long. But can it
be too short, as well?


There are many reasons why things take too long, including the government's penchant
for cramming everything imaginable into each contract vehicle. But the proponents of
reform look to simple, global solutions. For instance, instead of finding ways to cut down
the enormous size of many proposals, the reformers scrap them in favor or oral briefings.
To replace a maze of evaluation criteria, the reformers propose substituting a quick
glance at the past performance scoreboard of the bidders.


This way of thinking weighs only the cost of procurement and presumes that it offers no
benefits. But, properly accomplished, the acquisition process results in the best value
for taxpayer dollars. Given that the government spends billions each year, an intelligent
investment in procurement can reap significant returns. The returns are difficult or
impossible to quantify, so they are often ignored. Let's remember them before we turn
contracting officers into highly paid order clerks.


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