A reformer's primer: Zen and the fine art of buying computers

There is, however, one nagging question: Is the process better?

To answer this knotty question I contacted the great Zen Master. He invited me to
record a conversation for GCN with a devout pupil on that very topic.

I now take you to the temple of the great Zen Master, who has posed this question to
his devout pupil: If government procurement were a goose, would it fly north or south in
the winter?

The devout pupil's answer: "Yes."

"You have spoken correctly, but do you know why?" the Zen Master replied.

"The goose flies as the flock flies. There is not one but many flocks in
government procurement. Some go north for the winter. They start from a place that is far
to the south so that achieving one with northness will not harm them. Some go south for
the winter and, when they pass the ones who have achieved northness, they declare that
they have achieved southness and stop. So, the direction is dependent on the flock to
which the goose belongs," the devout pupil said.

The Zen Master thought for a moment and asked, "What of procurement reform? What
of the Federal Acquisitions Reform Act and the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act?
Surely, there cannot be multiple flocks heading in different directions now that
procurement has been simplified, streamlined, shortened and made more user-friendly. The
system must be better."

The devout pupil replied, "Hidden in your question are the seeds of confusion. You
have sown them in my mind, and now I see through a cabbage patch greenly. But wait, there
is the glimmer of an answer.

"The reforms were all based on the erroneous belief that before procurement reform
all of the flocks were going in the same direction at the same time.

"To the untrained eye, all the geese would seem to be just wandering around.
Unfortunately, that was never true. What seemed to be aimless wanderings were really
migrating flocks heading in different directions but never getting too far apart before
they reversed course.

"With FASA and FARA, all of the flocks were told to change direction. And most
did. But to the casual observer, the muddle looks just as before. And, in this case, the
casual observer's perceptions are correct."

Now the Zen Master was concerned. The devout pupil was expounding heresy.

"You say, devout pupil, that the government procurement process has exchanged one
muddled state for another. How is this true?" the Zen Master asked.

"It is precisely because you know that you cannot know the prior state of muddle
that you know that the current state can be perceived as naught else but muddle," the
devout pupil said.

Not to be out-Zenned, the Zen Master replied, "If what you say is true, you may
well be correct. Even I am willing to be enlightened, so speak of knowing truth by not
knowing facts."

The student asked, "Which is faster, the cheetah or the killer whale?"

"It depends on how one measures speed," the Zen Master replied.

"If speed is measured over the ground or over the ocean floor, an accurate but
false comparison can be made, for the cheetah does not travel over the ocean floor and the
killer whale does not travel over the ground. The difference makes the comparison
false," the great Zen Master said.

"So, what have you learned, Zen Master?" the devout pupil asked.

"I have learned that without a common frame of reference, comparisons are
impossible," the Zen Master answered.

"And with the former procurement process, what was the frame of reference?"
the devout pupil asked.

"The effectiveness and efficiency of the old system," the Zen Master replied.

"They can be known, perhaps," the Zen Master said, "if there were

"'Perhaps' and 'if' are terms of muddle," the devout pupil said.

"And perhaps we can measure the effectiveness and efficiency of the new system
some day," offered the Zen Master.

"The same muddlesome terms," the devout student replied.

So the discussion continued. Eventually, the Zen Master conceded that there were no
measurements for effectiveness and efficiency of the old system. The new system cannot be
shown to be better than the old sys-tem but can only be argued to be different.

The Zen Master posed a final question: "Maybe it should be re-engineered?"

Bob Little, an attorney who has worked for the General Accounting Office and a
Washington law firm, teaches federal contract law.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.