Feds Propose IT Acquisition Squads

The old sports maxim “There is no ‘I’ in team” is getting repackaged for use in the U.S. government’s approach to acquiring information technology and related services. Federal agencies are being urged to utilize a team approach as they collectively spend US$80 billion per year for IT products and services.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) is encouraging agencies to develop IT acquisition “cadres” consisting of several members, each with different skills, in order to manage IT procurement more productively. OFPP initiated the cadre program in response to a 25-point plan issued by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) last December that deals with improving government IT management.

“Far too often, federal information technology acquisitions, especially for large projects, have been plagued by budget overruns, missed milestones, or failure to deliver expected functionality — and sometimes all three,” said OFPP Administrator Dan Gordon in a July 13, 2011, memo to agency contracting and IT managers.

Utilizing a team approach, in which various goals, skills, and functions are better integrated, will go a long way to creating a more efficient IT contracting process, he maintained.

Contracting Review Required

While OFPP will not force agencies to actually form acquisition cadres, Gordon has required the agencies to analyze their current practices and describe what could — or should — be improved by implementing a cadre-approach to IT procurement. Agencies have until August 31 to report their findings to OFPP. The idea is to develop a culture where the use of cadres — or Integrated Program Teams (IPT) — becomes self-evident.

“Agencies will benefit from reviewing their current IT acquisition workforce and program needs to determine if developing a new specialized team, or expanding the use of cadres where they exist, would lower program risk and improve outcomes,” Gordon explained.

The program should also benefit contractors.

“Further, IT vendors — from large firms to small businesses — can target their communication efforts and build better, more effective relationships with the cadres,” noted Gordon.

Each team should include government staff with expertise in program management, resource management, procurement, systems architecture and engineering, security, requirements analysis, test management, and configuration management, to evaluate all aspects of the project, and ensure delivery of promised functionality, he said.

The OFPP initiative coincides with the significant change in IT procurement that is being ushered in with innovative technologies, especially the cloud.

“OFPP’s program is appropriate in terms of the team approach. In IT, there’s always a certain level of customization needed, which also requires a depth of knowledge, and you need many people to ask the right questions,” Shawn McCarthy, research director at IDC Government Insights, told CRM Buyer.

The cadre program emphasized the need for the government to employ people with the right skills to address various aspects of IT contracting. While the team approach is one way to assemble those skills, McCarthy also sees a concurrent shift in the types of skills that will be required in the future.

There will be a change in the functional orientation of government IT operations over the next few years, he predicted, especially as portions of the IT infrastructure migrate to the cloud.

“The IT person still has a role to play, but it will be in more of an advisory nature, versus actual operations, to help agencies understand IT requirements and implement what is necessary,” McCarthy said.

That includes personnel dealing with IT procurement.

“Government IT shops will become less about systems operation and maintenance and more about operating as centers of expertise for their organizations,” McCarthy observes in a recently published short white paper.

Essentially, IT personnel will become service brokers “who know details about the correct technologies for specific solutions, and also the predictable price points and effective platforms for those solutions,” McCarthy wrote. “This is an important skill set that can help them serve their organization in a new way.”

There’s a place for acquisition squads in the procurement process, but they shouldn’t be viewed as the best or only means for taming the IT contracting beast, suggested Tim Young, senior manager at Deloitte Services.

“Given that the size and complexity of IT projects has increased over time, but that the relative size of the acquisition and IT program management workforce has largely remained static, using acquisition cadres can help realize synergies as long as they are comprised of the business owner, program manager, and technical lead in addition to contracting personnel,” Young told CRM Buyer.

But outsourcing the entire acquisition process as a short cut is probably not advisable, he said. “The fact that federal agencies routinely hire external expertise for various functions, utilizing a blended workforce comprised of federal staff and external consultants can help, as long as organizational conflicts of interest are mitigated, and consultants competent in federal IT planning, acquisition and execution are utilized.”

Decision-making should not be outsourced, Young added.

Other Factors Affect Contracting

“It’s all to the good that OFPP is re-emphasizing the integrated approach as far as IT procurement is concerned, although the concept isn’t all that original,” Gregg Garrett, managing director and practice leader at Navigant, told CRM Buyer.

“In my experience, that approach has been taken with good result in weapons systems procurement in the Air Force,” he said. Prior to his current consulting experience, Garrett, a former fighter pilot, spent several years as an acquisitions expert in the USAF.

“I would like to have seen more emphasis from OFPP on better systems analysis and procurement logistics as part of the capabilities used for acquisitions,” Garrett remarked.

While the team approach has its merits, there are other personnel needs related to IT procurement, he noted.

“There is a shortage of talent in terms of numbers, but there is also a shortage in skills. There may in some cases be enough bodies — but they don’t have the skills,” he pointed out.

“It can take at least five years to bring people up to speed, and training can help. But here again, government training is often very generic and geared toward meeting contract regulations rather than taking a strategic approach to ensure that the purchase actually meets the requirements of the customer,” Garrett said, “so the training goals need to be upgraded as well.”

John K. Higgins is a career business writer, with broad experience for a major publisher in a wide range of topics including energy, finance, environment and government policy. In his current freelance role, he reports mainly on government information technology issues for ECT News Network.

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