Neal Fox | The Age of Oversight

IT Contracting'commentary

The age of oversight is upon us, and the era of reform is dead. The acquisition reforms of the previous decade are being systematically wiped out. Government overseers are mowing them down the way a weed whacker cuts through a daisy field. It is 1984 all over again.

This is especially bad news at a time when government procurement professionals are trying to support our troops in the field, provide disaster relief, defend the homeland and support scores of other urgent needs. At a time when more reforms are needed to speed up procurement processes, government overseers are applying the brakes.

Do these government overseers really believe that burdensome oversight is good for government? They should think again.

By definition, something burdensome has a slowing influence. In this era of agile enemies, sudden devastation and rapidly changing technologies, can we afford the cost of lengthening the acquisition process for critical information technology and other important capabilities? Our world speeds up as each day passes. Technologies come and go quickly, and procurement processes cannot keep up. As a result, burdensome oversight is more than just an inconvenience. It is a threat on many levels.

Congress has especially encouraged this move into the age of oversight, and more bad news is on the way. The House Government Reform and Oversight Committee has become so focused on oversight that one wonders why their name still includes the term 'reform.' Government inspectors general are usurping the authority of federal agency managers, causing procurement professionals to fear the consequences of doing anything quickly or in an innovative way. Unfortunately, our overseer friends in Congress and the IG are more skilled in interrogation techniques than knowledgeable about the issues they investigate. This also leaves government officials in the difficult position of trying to explain reasonable actions to someone who cannot understand them and therefore has no basis for judging them. And since there is a predisposition toward assumption of guilt, the combination is both unfair and deleterious.

Pending legislation is trying to strengthen the hand of federal agency IGs when the real need is to put oversight in its proper place. Giving greater authority to overseers is not what is needed. The Defense Authorization Bill would also strip multiple-award contracts of several key provisions that enable convenient procurement of IT systems. Overseers are creating unfunded mandates that take scarce resources away from mission fulfillment. This rapid growth of burdensome oversight is wiping away years of progress made through acquisition reforms that were finally starting to make government acquisition respectable.

Reasonable people understand the need for balance, so a proper level of oversight has its place. Balance is a good thing that tempers the extremes. But that balance has been lost in this age of oversight. Qversight should be balanced against the need to get the job done, pursued with a sense of fairness and tempered with judicious use of the threat of punishment for wrongdoers. It must be targeted at bad actors, not the initial response on every government procurement issue. As things stand now, government procurement professionals are often frozen in fear by intimidating threats from out-of-control overseers. And the bad news is that it is getting worse.

Good people in government are being unfairly criticized by agency IGs, verbally abused by congressional committees, publicly demeaned and continually put in no-win situations. A favorite tactic is to criticize slow procurement during a crisis, then follow up with microscopic inspections over the ensuing years, seeking to hang anyone who made a mistake or committed a minor infraction during the heat of battle. This is especially true when the need is most urgent and delays can have serious consequences. The result is that our government procurement professionals are being taught to default to inaction, waiting for the blessing of overseers before proceeding with any action that is not completely defined and using only IG-approved procedures. That is the true cost of burdensome oversight, namely, that government personnel will revert to bureaucracy when oversight becomes burdensome. It is an inexorable law of the universe. This is especially harmful during a crisis when procurements must be made quickly with little information and ill-defined requirements. Burdensome oversight is not good for government, rather it is a primary cause of institutionalized mediocrity. In today's environment, the resulting delays are costly and put those on the front lines of crises at risk.

The age of oversight is bad for government and bad for the nation. We cannot afford its negative impact on our military, homeland security, disaster relief and the myriad other important missions and crises we are engaged in.

Neal Fox (nfox@usa.com) is the former assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition at GSA and manages Neal Fox Consulting (nealfoxconsulting.com).

About the Author

Neil Fox is the former assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition at GSA's Federal Supply Service, and is now principal at Neal Fox Consulting.

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