Six Key Acquisition Challenges Remain

Published: September 26, 2018

Acquisition ReformAcquisition WorkforceContract AwardsContracting TrendsGovernment PerformanceSmall Business

The GAO found federal agencies still face key issues at each part of the contracting life cycle and three more challenges are apparent throughout the entire duration of an acquisition.

It is no secret to contractors that federal government acquisitions can be long, arduous and riddled with complexities. In 2007, the Acquisition Advisory Panel, formed by the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003, issued a report listing several reforms the federal government must take to enhance its acquisition process. The GAO followed up the panel’s report with a recent report, “Congress and the Executive Branch Have Taken Steps to Address Key Issues, but Challenges Endure.” While acknowledging that several reform recommendations have been instituted, the GAO found that six key challenges remain across the government when it comes to contracting for good and services. Three of the challenges reside in each phase of the acquisition life cycle while the other three exist throughout contracting’s life span:

While the GAO report goes into detail on the historical background, policies, evaluation criteria and detailed results for each challenge, the following includes the key nuggets found under each challenge.

Requirements Definition

The report specifically found that DOD still struggles to define requirements for its largest acquisition programs due to unrealistic expectations, understaffed requirements development workforce within Army with a 22% decrease in staff since 2008 and DOD’s lack of competitive prototyping for weapons systems. Moreover, performance-based acquisitions (PBA), while becoming more frequent among other federal agencies, is facing a cultural resistance among those at DOD who hesitate to give contractor’s control over the agency’s requirements.

Competition and Pricing

The watchdog agency found that competition rates (a comparison of the percentage of total obligations for competitive contracts vs. noncompetitive contracts) among federal agencies stayed relatively the same from 2013 to 2017, with less than a 2% difference. However, competitive rates under DOD dropped in this time frame. Several factors contribute to the 4% drop in DOD competitive rates including barriers from DOD’s contracting process that prevent companies from entering the market. Specifically, “lack of data rights” has been a resounding reason for DOD noncompetitive acquisitions due to previous decisions by the agency not to purchase data rights from OEMs.  The increased number of bridge contracts has also contributed to a lower competitive rate. For example, the Army originally awarded a bridge contract in August 2011 for computer support services for a 12 month period and ultimately spanned 42 months until February 2015, when a new contract was finally awarded.  

Contractor Oversight

The GAO studied awarded service contracts requiring increased management attention from FY 2013 to FY 2017 across the federal government. In all, these types of contracts totaled $56.1B in FY 2013 and increased to $61.1B in FY 2017. Results showed that while these types of contacts remained consistent for civilian agencies at around 20%, increased management attention contracts under DOD rose from 18% to 20% by FY 2017. Given this, the GAO also found that DOD lacked “sufficient numbers of adequately trained personnel, including contracting officer’s representatives (CORs), to oversee contractors in contingency operations like those in Afghanistan and Iraq.” At the VA, the GAO also found that the agency lacked the tools to help officials oversee contracts, particularly those with highly-technical aspects.

Acquisition Workforce

While GSA, OFPP and DOD have worked throughout the past decade to introduce new training programs to improve the skills of the federal acquisition workforce, gaps still remain in the staffing and technical expertise of the acquisition workforce. In fact, the GAO found that five agencies in November 2016 – DOD, Commerce, HHS, DOT and Treasury – implemented very little of the workforce activities for IT acquisitions that had been set-up. Looking forward, the report cites a new certification program implemented in 2018 by the OFPP for digital services as an additional step agencies can use to help increase the expertise in buying IT good and services.

Federal Procurement Data

The Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS) has undergone several reporting requirement changes in the last several years, increasing in completeness from 98% in 2009 to 99.2% in FY 2016 with an accuracy rate of 955 in FY 2017.  Yet the data still faces “capability limitations.” The system is still unable to track specific contract award data elements, such as subcontractors, due to the lack of a corresponding data-entry field. The report explains that in FY 2020, GSA plans to fully integrate FPDS with nine other legacy systems to form one, unified system under its Integrated Award Environment (IAE) to reduce gaps in information and the rate of error in data input.  

Small Business Participation

Small business awards have improved tremendously across the federal government. In FY 2017, the federal space met three out of five government-wide small business participation goals and the number of agencies meeting all of their small business goals increased from two to seven. However, the GAO report still found that HUBZone goals are consistently unmet by a majority of agencies. Among the hiccups in small business participation, many companies expressed concern that category management would knock the number of small businesses out of an opportunity for an award. Additionally, the GAO found that agencies are still struggling to create and fully staff Offices of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSBDU) and gaps in certifying and recertifying business eligibility in small business programs by the SBA.