New procurement theory: Commercial items do not exist

For years the government has bemoaned the fact that it could not, would not or did not
buy commercial items.

I have suggested from time to time in this column that the thrill of buying commercial
items might be somewhat overrated. I have even suggested that commercial items per se
don't necessarily exist.

Consider the following cautionary tale of one federal agency that didn't buy the theory
that there are no commercial items. In this case, the agency is buying tractors, but
computer hardware could be easily substituted.

The Big Ditch Commission moves dirt--and lots of it. To do its job, BDC buys
earth-moving equipment--and lots of it. One day, BDC decided to buy some tractors, but
just a few this time.

A while later, it decided to buy some more tractors, the same make and model so that it
would be able to control the spare parts inventory and establish a standard maintenance
program. A while later, BDC needed some more tractors and again purchased the same make
and model machines.

In the fullness of time, the tractors began to need repairs. The worn or broken parts
were removed but the new spare parts didn't fit. OK, BDC officials decided, we'll use
parts cannibalized from tractors that had been seriously damaged. But those parts also
often failed to fit. What gives, the commission officials wondered.

When BDC looked into the matter they found that while they were buying the tractors
from a single company, the company used multiple production subcontractors. There was a
cosmetic standardization guide, but no hard-and-fast requirements. So the different
tractors coming from the different production sites had slight variations--nothing major,
but enough to screw up BDC's maintenance logistics plan.

Not only is the story semi-interesting, it has a moral. And, it's sad, but it's true.
The moral: Be careful what you wish for.

Procurement will never be as simple as whipping out your credit card to make a purchase
at Sears, for example. Yeah, it's fine if you need one PC or one software package. But you
shouldn't expect that you will be able to build a network with easily interchangeable
equipment and desktop machines if you buy in a piece-meal fashion with out a standard
requirement level.

There is no obvious quick or end-run procurement technique if your agency has a
specific and perhaps long-term need. Even when buying commercial, you likely will have to
provide detailed explanations and specifications to make sure that you get what you
actually want when you make a purchase.

Sure, reducing the use of end-to-end custom buys will save time and money. you
certainly don't need to have a vendor build you a PC from chip to case. But you do need to
set some baseline rules. The trick is to blend commercial items in with a detailed project
plan and agency standards.

In reality, most agencies can't just run over to CompUSA and expect to provide PCs,
preconfigured and loaded with software suites, for all their users and then expect to swap
out parts, software and applications over the coming years.

Even when buying commercial items, you need to have some controls.

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