Canny consumers rule at FAA

In November 1995, Congress gave FAA an exemption from the government's procurement
regulations and directed it to develop its own buying and personnel practices.


Yet in the 18 months since those changes were adopted, FAA's conversion has gone almost
unnoticed, eclipsed by the governmentwide reforms that occurred with the Information
Technology Management Reform Act.


An independent audit by Booz, Allen & Hamilton, sent to Congress this month, gives
the FAA's Acquisition Management System high marks.


The study found FAA's buys happen faster, communications with vendors happen more often
and use of commercial products is broader. But it also raised two caution flags, George L.
Donohue, FAA assistant administrator for research and acquisition, said at a recent budget
briefing.


"We don't collect data on them when we do" make such awards, he
said. But on average, FAA historically had more 8(a) contractors than the average federal
agency.


"We underestimated the workload," Donohue said.


To counter this protest problem, FAA recently hired Anthony N. Palladino as director of
dispute resolution and will hire additional staff.


As a general recommendation, the report said FAA needed to develop better metrics for
measuring its progress. Interestingly, the independent report was less critical than an
internal FAA audit completed in May.


Congress and the systems vendor organizations have generally ignored the changes at
FAA. A staff member in the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Subcommittee on
Aviation said the subcommittee would not examine the issue until the next budget season.
And Olga Grkavac, vice president of integration for the Information Technology Association
of America, said her group had not been tracking FAA progress since the original
legislation was signed.


Members of a blue-ribbon panel established by FAA to oversee the Acquisition Management
System (AMS) suggested that lack of interest could be part of the reason for the
overhaul's success.


Commission members, however, credited people, not process, for the FAA turnaround.


"What these statutes and regulation changes do is really give a signal that if you
want to change, you can change. What made FAA change is George Donohue," said Ralph
C. Nash Jr., a member of the blue-ribbon panel and professor emeritus of law at George
Washington University in Washington. "That's 10 times more important than the
statute."


Stephen A. Kalish, also a panel member and vice president of transportation programs
for Computer Sciences Corp., agreed.


"Ninety-five percent of this is leadership," he said. "If you have
leaders, they'll use the process or tools and they'll get it done regardless."


There is nothing that was done under the old system that can't be done with the new
system, said Wilson Felder, director of aviations services for TRW Inc. Many of the
changes are institutional, he said.


"It's possible to write an excellent procurement using" the Federal
Acquisition Regulation, he said. "It is also possible to write a terrible one using
AMS."


It is, however, difficult to do a precise apples-to-apples comparison of the two
procurement processes, one FAA contractor said, particularly because there have been few
large-scale contracts during the last 18 months.


But that change alone was a key aim of the reform: smaller, more efficient buys that
would let FAA keep up with rapidly changing technology. Most observers agreed there is
still a way to go before FAA can declare the new buying methods a full success.


"There is not enough accumulated evidence to say unequivocally that the reform
model is a complete success. My impression is that it is a success and it is likely to be
successful," said Bert Concklin, president of the Professional Services Council and a
member of the blue-ribbon panel.


One FAA contractor noted that even modest requests for proposals have trappings of
former large-scale contracts.


Other reformers give tentative high marks to FAA reform. "They have gotten off to
a good start," said Steven Kelman, former administrator for the Office of Federal
Procurement Policy and a member of the blue-ribbon panel. "In the end, the jury is
still out. We still need to see whether the FAA will be able to do a better job with
getting returns on its IT investments," he said.


The reforms free personnel to work on other areas, said Kelman, a professor of public
management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.


"That will deliver real change only if FAA officials make good use of that time to
do a better job in terms of figuring out what they want and managing their
contracts," he said.


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