What Innovating Acquisition Should Mean – And Should Not

Talk of innovating Federal acquisition is widespread. Change is needed, and many smart people are hard at work on it. Confusion accompanies the conversation, however, and clarification is needed. If you’re involved in an acquisition innovation effort, ask yourself the following questions.

What should we mean by innovating acquisition? Broadly, it seems the government can innovate in two ways. It can innovate how it acquires, and it can innovate what it acquires. “How” pertains to the acquisition process. “What” pertains to goods and services delivered to customers. These are different innovation targets with very different requirements. Because innovation should support business objectives, when we talk about innovating acquisition let’s be clear about what we mean.

What should we NOT mean by innovating acquisition? Contract officers play a vital compliance role that we should be extremely careful about innovating. Enforcing rules, ensuring fairness, etc. are the source of trust and integrity in government acquisition. Updating, fine-tuning, or perhaps process improvement could be in order. In the current regulatory framework, I don’t see this as a role or activity in need of innovating. Innovation isn’t the answer to everything, so when we talk about innovating acquisition let’s be clear how it pertains to COs’ role.

Who should innovate? I see expectations placed on contract officers to change things they do not own. Contract and procurement offices are responsible for the acquisition process, and COs need to help innovate the process. COs can also facilitate business conversations about goods and services. But program offices are responsible for what’s delivered to the customer, and we should look to them for conversations about innovating business and technology models in their organizations. The notion of acquisition can include everything pre- and post-award, so when we talking about innovating acquisition, let’s be clear what part of the process we’re talking about and whose job it is to innovate.

How much should we innovate? Organizations can innovate incrementally, moderately, or dramatically. The key is the degree of change in two things – the organization’s business model and technology model. Change one or both a little, and innovation will be incremental. Change both, together, and innovation can be game-changing. This is a business decision about how government acquires, what it acquires, or both. When we talk about innovating acquisition, let’s be clear about how much innovation is needed and appropriate, from a business standpoint.

What innovating acquisition should mean – and should not – depends on these conversations. Innovation means doing something different to get a better outcome, for the customer. To a contracts shop, innovation should mean doing something different to get better buys for program offices. For program offices, innovation should mean doing something different to get better goods and services for citizens and businesses. Ultimately, innovating acquisition should mean buying better to deliver better for the mission. That’s a shared responsibility, with the contracts or program office emphasized depending on the innovation.

Let’s also not forget that innovation involves organizational and cultural change. The more game-changing the innovation, the more fundamental the organizational change. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, innovating acquisition can mean completely rethinking government’s business and technology models. Perhaps one day government will buy goods and services at the enterprise level. Perhaps one day government will close physical offices and deliver services through apps.

It need not mean that, but it can. So when we talk about innovating acquisition, let’s be clear on what we mean – and don’t.

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