Let's Fix The Federal Lockout First
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Ever since Barack Obama said that he wanted to “blow up how we procure for IT” there’s been a lot of talk about holistic, comprehensive solutions to the fix. Heck, we at the Department even have an seven chapter ebook called How To Fix Procurement.
There’s an irony to this sort of talk, especially from the technology community. Because, in coming up with anything “comprehensive,” we’re dooming ourselves to the same kind of failed strategy that begot the very IT projects that caused this mess: the methodology of “comprehensiveness.” Coming up with the “whole” solution, figuring out where all the problems are, drafting a large piece of legislation, gettingl it passed and holding our breath while we see if it works. If we expect software to fail using this methodology, what could possibly make us think that legislation would succeed, either in passage, or by affecting the change we want to see?
Moreover, do cities and states suffer from the same problems as the Federal Government? Probably not. Do individual governments likely have different sets of procurement problems, as designed by their city legislature, governmental structure, culture, and current technology platforms? Probably so.
The problems of procurement are as standardized as the world’s religions. And trying to solve all the problems comprehensively, and all at once, is a mistake. That’s why, our ideas talk about principles, not specific tweaks.
But at the Federal level, there are some things that are on fire. These aren’t areas for optimizing efficiency, or getting a return on investment. These are systems that are broken. They’re federal buildings in our federal infrastructure, and they’re on fire. When a building is on fire, I suppose one could pontificate about the cholesterol level and BMI of the people inside of the building, but it’s a better idea to worry about putting the fire out.
So what’s on fire? SAM.gov’s business registration process effectively closes the door on new businesses registering for the government. In order to be awarded (or seriously considered for) a government contract, you must first be registered on SAM.gov. And it’s almost impossible for any small business to get through this process.
So how impossible? Here’s the registrations of new businesses before and after the SAM.gov launch:
This is an unmitigated disaster. Since SAM.gov launched in 2012, the website hasn’t been able to come close to the old level of registration – more often than not, they’re half what they were before SAM.gov became the central registration process.
Imagine what would happen to Facebook’s stock price if a redesign cut new user registrations in half. Or to Apple’s if half as many people bought a new iPhone as the last year? Or to Google’s if half as many web searches happened after a google redesign? What if they paid $171 Million for that redesign? If it wasn’t fixed in a year, would Mark Zuckerberg, Tim Cook, or Larry Page still have jobs?
The health of Federal Contracting’s competitiveness starts with the ability for people to enter the marketplace. SAM.gov made the marketplace doubly hard to enter, and over time, this will tax innovation in government to death.
The other fire is over at the Small Business Administration: the agency tasked with ensuring that significant portions of federal contracting dollars get spent on small, women owned, minority owned, service disabled veteran owned, and other types of economically disadvantaged businesses in the marketplace. The SBA’s technical infrastructure, at least externally, is crumbling.
Here is the SBA’s database of businesses that have some sort of small business classification. It’s used by contracting officers inside of the federal government to verify that small businesses that claim to be certified do, indeed have their certifications; by large contractors to seek out small businesses to “team” with and bid on contracts; and by transparency and oversight professionals to combat fraud in the system.
One common complaint about government contracting is that “all the contracts go to these set-aside companies, rather than people who can do the best job.” This is nonsense, as there are plenty of economically disadvantaged businesses that do a terrific job in the technology marketplace today.
Setting aside contracts to economically disadvantaged businesses doesn’t cause a talent problem. Having a byzantine registration process that involves downloading 8 non-standard, Adobe-only PDFs, complete with essay writing to prove that you are indeed a woman or a minority, does cause a talent problem. It makes things so difficult that a consulting industry has popped up just to help people that are already economically disadvantaged break into the marketplace.
The argument against opening up the registration process is that these new small businesses will enter the marketplace, see contracts and RFPs that aren’t written well, and be discouraged and walk away. This is the same argument against opening data or source code: “we don’t want to put our data online because the quality is so low that it’s embarrassing.” Having ugly data is not an excuse to keep the public in the dark, and having ugly contracts and RFPs is not an excuse to limit competition in the space.
Finally, good consultants educate their clients. The best way to get better RFPs and Contracts is to allow for new blood into the space – new people who can better instruct their clients on what to ask for, and how best to ask for it. Bringing new people into the system is necessary in order to modernize the system itself.
We’re all for a “yes, and” movement for procurement reform. But let’s fix what’s broken, first. While we think it’s noble and good to think about all the issues regarding technical management and contract management inside the federal government, we think that there are priorities. Let’s first worry about making the marketplace competitive again through streamlining the registration processes for new businesses, and then let’s worry about whether the competitions on the inside are as fair and efficient as they can be in as agile a manner as possible.
Clay is the chairman and co-founder of The Department of Better Technology.