Dec 31 2009

Acquisition Control

How to survive when the IT acquisitions staffs in government are overstretched.

The realities of government acquisition add complex wrinkles when it comes to overseeing federal systems projects and information technology shops — as Patrick Schambach, a former IT chief for the Transportation Security Agency and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, calls them, “the mysteries that shouldn’t exist.”

In an environment where IT chiefs are expected to deliver not just technology excellence but meet cost savings under mandates from the Office of Management and Budget, here are three tips to keep acquisition a focal part of the IT game plan:

Keep Your Hand in the Cookie Jar

The CIO needs to control the dollars whenever possible, says Robert Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group and a veteran of 29 years of government IT service. In many agencies, the program managers have budget authority and the CIO organizations often must spend at their discretion. But given the tricky acquisition process and the lack of key acquisition employees, he thinks this isn’t always the best approach.

Budget authority is crucial, says Woods. “There’s an Al Capone saying: ‘You can get more done with a kind word and a gun than with just a kind word.’ I’m with Al Capone: Get the money.”

Provide Cover for the Acquisition Workforce You Do Have

The acquisition role in government is under attack, says Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council. In the last two months, there have been nearly two dozen congressional hearings about acquisition, and the council’s surveys find that federal acquisition program managers feel under extreme pressure. It’s crucial for senior management to defend the important role that the procurement staff plays in IT, he says.

“Thirty percent of the federal budget goes to acquisitions,” says Soloway, a former acquisition reform chief for the Defense Department. “We’re simply not investing adequately in training acquisition program managers and toward giving that a major focus in government.” He suggests that CIOs take advantage of every opportunity to funnel recruiting and training dollars into acquisition and to come to the defense of the staff that they do have and be their advocates.

Identify the Right Tool for the Job

There’s earned value management; there’s Lean Six Sigma; there’s the Program Assessment Rating Tool. The list of potential ways to do IT management and acquisitions smarter, better and faster goes on and on, says Scott Cragg, chief architect at the Veterans Affairs Department.

“Every day, I search for the right method and matrix to figure out how to get ahead,” says Cragg. He advises looking at what needs to get done and then reshaping the environment and applying a methodology so that the people the government hires for program management can succeed. Whether that’s acquisition or software development, this challenge is universal. The process — PART or EVM — might need to be different in different cases, Cragg says.