There’s a growing realization that the federal acquisition process impedes our nation’s ability to access the capabilities it needs to keep pace with the challenges of modern government. The process is so convoluted that it skews the game in favor of specialists structured for the federal gridiron. Guys like me. Meanwhile, our nation’s fleet-footed, three-point shooting small businesses have a tough time playing federal football.
The government is far too dependent on contracting. We’re not going to fix that overnight. But if we’re going to be dependent on contracting there are some things we can do to level the playing field and ensure that the acquisitions process doesn’t come at the expense of innovative solutions.
PLAY TO STRENGTHS
Many elite companies used to working with private sector clients aren’t equipped to deal with the long, expensive, proposal-centric federal sales process. They’re built for a radically different, high-touch, personal, more presentation/demo focused private-sector game. The government needs to tailor competitions to these strengths when they want to look beyond the usual govcon suspects for solutions. If they don’t, traditional federal sales guys like me will win every time.
CUT BACK ON MERIT BADGES
Government solicitations often include random requirements, sort of like government contracting merit badges, that only govcon specialists spend the time and money to acquire. Some of these (looking at you facility clearances and DCAA audits) require a lot of inside football to get your hands on. Those check boxes are tough to finagle if you don’t have federal friends to grease the skids for you. When the government makes these mandatory they effectively rig the competition in favor of govcon specialists like me.
EASE UP ON FLOWDOWNS
Sometimes those govcon merit badges really are necessary to ensure quality delivery. For a prime contractor. But too many solicitations flow these requirements down to subcontractors, too. As a federal cybersecurity sales guy I’ve led efforts with significant impact on national security where I couldn’t bring the best capabilities to bear because the organizations with those capabilities weren’t govcon specialists and didn’t have the right merit badges. That’s insanely frustrating.
RETHINK PRICE REALISM
Pricing gets weird for high-tech companies. Picture Google. Google has legendary perks, continuous training, flex time to spend on personal projects and a near infinite slate of think-way-outside-the-box investment projects. This is what strong, high-tech companies look like. But it comes with a cost structure that’s wildly different from your typical body shop govcon specialist, built for high-volume, butts-in-seats, 40-hours-per-week type work. Not because the high-tech companies are more profitable (they often aren’t), but because they are way more expensive to run. We need to factor this into price realism discussions when the government wants elite capabilities rather than the same old staff augmentation contractors
Sometimes the only way for federal acquisition to get the capabilities it wants is to invite companies to bid. Invite-only competitions happen all the time, though I must confess that, even as an expert in federal procurement, the circumstances that determine their legality is a mystery to me. But I do know that we can fix a whole ton of procurement problems by clarifying the invite-only process, bringing some transparency to invite-only bids and then using them selectively to access the right capabilities.
LET’S CHANGE THE ACQUISITION GAME
Acquisition rules and regulations are essential to fair contracting. But we must recognize that the current process creates a game that not everyone can play. Even Silicon Valley’s best, most innovative companies are in for an NFL-style beatdown if they’re not structured to survive the federal gridiron. Most don’t even bother trying.
And that’s our loss.
The good news is we don’t need major reform to fix this. The things I’ve suggested here can happen within the existing regulatory schema. They will help level the playing field by ensuring the rules of the game actually let the best team win.
Which, by the way, is clearly Cleveland, as will be made obvious over the course of four games in the next couple of weeks. Go Cavs!
Featured Image Courtesy of Keith Allison