Time to perform

Thomas R. Temin

Good for the FBI, for revising the contract for its Virtual Case File system. Not much has gone right for the FBI recently, including this project. A linchpin of the agency's Trilogy modernization project, the VCS is headed for poster-child status among failed projects.

There's a staple joke of conference speech-givers: that the definition of insanity is repetition of an action, each time hoping for a different outcome. Use of specification-driven, cost-plus contracts seems to fit that definition in government.

Now, under CIO Zalmai Azmi, the FBI is changing its contracts with Science Applications International Corp. and Computer Sciences Corp. to be performance-based. The contractors will share the costs under an earned-value plan, Azmi has declared.

Performance-based acquisition is the trend in federal contracting. It's the right trend, especially when done in such a way that the contractor, and not just the government, loses its shirt if a project gets screwed up.

In big project after big project, the delays and cost overruns have multiple causes, some originating with how the government manages them. Problems are rarely 100 percent a contractor's fault.

Rarely, too, are government systems of this sort technically revolutionary. Although complex, it's not as if the Virtual Case System requires some exotic scientific breakthrough.

Performance-based acquisition offers the most potential for the government to get what it wants, because'in theory, at least'it plays to the strengths of each side. In a performance-based acquisition, the program office articulates the agency's requirements, refraining from detailed specs. Acquisition shops devise fair incentives. And the contractor or team of contractors figures out how to achieve the requirements within the incentive system.

So why don't more agencies do it?


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