EDITOR'S DESK: Procurement shift could go too far

Tom Temin

In the Offenbach opera 'Tales of Hoffmann,' the protagonist falls in love with a life-size mechanical doll that sings arias. When he views her through magic glasses, the doll Olympia seems real and beautiful to him. Only when the doll is broken to pieces does he come to his senses.

Sometimes in government, folks create magical constructions and believe fervently in them until the flaws appear or they find another infatuation. Discretion in procurement now seems to be the doll cast asunder.

Ten years ago, at the beginning of a spate of procurement reforms, the idea of giving agencies greater discretion was nearly universally hailed. More recently, two developments seem to have undermined the infatuation with procurement reform.

First was the Air Force tanker deal, an old-fashioned payola scandal that sent one prominent procurement official to jail. This has put Air Force procurement operations on a short leash. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at a recent hearing that the Air Force should preclude another scandal through 'major procurement reform.'

More generally affecting discretion is the one-government approach favored by the Bush Office of Management and Budget. This is manifested in initiatives such as the SmartBuy program, the still-nascent Lines of Business and the smushing together of the Federal Technology and Federal Supply services. Together with proliferating set-aside mandates, such initiatives lead to a more centralized, less discretionary approach.

Recently, GSA administrator Steve Perry went so far as to say agencies 'should not duplicate what GSA does' in buying. Well, why not bring back the Brooks Act and restore that wonderfully efficient process, the delegation of procurement authority?

Procurement reform has made government more efficient in some cases. It is neither the idealized doll its proponents hoped for nor a license to ignore rules as skeptics have charged. But it would help if the administration made clear how it wants agencies to acquire technology.

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