The Cyber Implications of Acquisition Speed: Part III

July 1, 2016
By Robert B. Dix Jr.

Full and open competition can improve federal procurement.

Third in an ongoing series of articles

Improving the speed and efficiency of the federal acquisition process will involve leveraging innovation to benefit end users. But as speed challenges are addressed, the integrity of the process must be maintained to preserve well-established requirements for full and open competition. These qualities are not mutually exclusive—in fact, they are complementary. Full and open competition helps improve the speed of acquisition and provides access to a range of innovative solutions and reduced total cost of ownership.

Far too often, procurement officials reference acquisition speed and convenience as justifications to evade provisions of federal law, regulations and Office of Management and Budget (OMB) guidelines that mandate full and open competition except in very limited circumstances. Those circumstances generally require a justification and approval, or J&A, to identify the technical reason or mission requirement prompting an agency to preclude competition. Unfortunately, such justifications often are based on faulty suppositions about interoperability, alternatives and costs. 

The culture of the federal acquisition process itself has become an impediment to success. “Lowest price technically acceptable” (LPTA) approaches fail to consider total cost of ownership, innovative solutions, energy efficiency, space requirements, security and privacy as basic tenets in any procurement evaluation process. Participation by qualified small and medium-size businesses also may be restricted by this approach.

Another challenge is that acquisition officials often erroneously believe that simply maintaining their incumbent providers will lead to the lowest costs, best solutions and least risk. A competitive evaluation process can reveal how the market is delivering innovation that can meet mission requirements and potentially reduce overall costs while enhancing the speed of acquisition.

It is essential to recognize that a homogeneous environment for information and communications technology is yesterday’s approach. No longer is this considered a satisfactory best practice, particularly for networking and infrastructure solutions. A single-provider approach may generate unnecessary challenges with security, privacy and operations through a critical vulnerability or single point of failure. Opting for heterogeneous, interoperable solutions that use open standards—as the OMB currently requires—rather than proprietary technologies taps into market innovations to meet technical and functional requirements, improves security and lowers costs.

Bringing current practice into line with actual federal requirements will make the acquisition process less burdensome. Today, acquisition officials often respond to requests for specific technologies. This hampers the process because the buyer must try to find a particular product, identify who might sell it and then try to buy it, along with any of its attendant licensing, maintenance and other requirements. Instead, if the process identified the technical, functional and performance requirements necessary to meet mission outcomes and invited the market to respond, it would result in more options to leverage innovation, reduce costs and meet mission requirements faster.

The barriers to government engaging with industry earlier in the process also must be removed. Improved engagement will help government better understand industry’s capabilities for meeting technical, functional and performance parameters to fulfill mission requirements. Coupled with an enhanced request for information (RFI) process that also is more inclusive and participatory for industry, procurement professionals could issue clearer requests for proposals (RFPs) and more efficiently complete an evaluation process while leveraging full and open competition.

It is misleading to suggest that full and open competition slows the acquisition process. Instead, it becomes speedier and more effective overall, with greater innovation and reduced costs. End users and the U.S. taxpayer should expect no less.

Robert B. Dix Jr. is a member of the AFCEA International Cyber Committee.

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