Federal Coach

By Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service

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Federal Coach: How the acquisition process can actually encourage government innovation

(Fox's Federal Coach column was originally published on The Washington Post On Leadership site.)

Ask any federal leader about their top frustrations in the federal government, and more often than not, you will hear about a set of broken management systems involving acquisition, human resources and information technology. (Just to name a few.)

The frustrations are real, but sometimes made worse by urban legends that hold leaders back from using the full set of opportunities available to help their teams and agencies serve the American people more effectively.

Take acquisition, for example. What busy leader has the time to scour the roughly 2,000 pages of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)? You’re much more likely to take the expert opinion of those around you. However, those experts often are just as influenced by years of mythical stories as they are by the actual letter of the law.

My organization, the Partnership for Public Service, and Booz Allen Hamilton recently published a report called “Innovation is a Contract Sport” that shows how the acquisition process can actually encourage innovation. It already has a history of leading to breakthrough inventions we take for granted, from the Internet to GPS.

So what flexibilities does a federal leader really have when it comes to the acquisition process?

Using citations from the FAR, the report highlights what can be done to achieve innovative outcomes while preserving competition, transparency, accountability and cost-effective results. Here are two of the key highlights:

Break out of the “us” versus “them” model to create a more inclusive team.

Acquisition Team consists of all participants in Government acquisition including not only representatives of the technical, supply, and procurement communities, but also the customers they serve and the contractors who provide the products and services. FAR 1.102(C)

Many innovations are as a result of collaboration between federal employees, private-sector companies, grantees and the academic community, but government often falls short of its goals and expectations when the various participants are kept at arms-length.

An example of effective collaboration occurred in 2009, when the nation was facing its first flu pandemic in decades. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was able to quickly mobilize a set of public, private and nonprofit actors at the first signs of a problem.

The government’s response was cohesive because it incorporated the work of the CDC and other federal agencies as well as the private companies that made the vaccines, state and local governments that distributed the vaccines, and doctors and clinics that were on the front lines. This multi-faceted effort allowed our country to quickly develop solutions and respond to the crisis before the flu spread too far, too quickly.

The lesson here is that agencies can and should build cross-functional, cross-sector teams as early as possible if the goal is to innovate. The federal acquisition rules allow for such collaboration, and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy is trying hard to encourage this sort of team building.

Move from zero tolerance to reasonable risk-taking.

Reasonable risk-taking is appropriate as long as risks are controlled and mitigated. FAR 39.102(A)

The Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence was created to coordinate the high-risk, high-reward research programs that tackle some of the intelligence community’s most difficult problems. Because of the uncertainty inherent in its work, most of the projects have a “less than 50 percent probability of success,” according to IARPA’s director.

To mitigate risk, the team builds what they call “incremental gates” – stopping points – into contracts where the team can reassess performance and determine whether to cease work or to proceed, and under what conditions.

There’s always a chance that government may fail when trying to solve big problems. As long as agencies review their contracts regularly and end underperforming contracts, however, federal leaders can save time and taxpayer money. Agency leaders also must recognize that failure is part of the innovation process and should be used as a learning opportunity.

These insights may not offer a solution to every acquisition problem, but they do provide a starting point and prove that our government’s rules and regulations usually offer more creativity than believed.

What have you learned about federal acquisition rules and regulations that help, rather than prevent, innovation in government? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below or email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Posted by Tom Fox, VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service on Apr 19, 2016 at 12:55 PM

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Edward A. Zurndorfer Certified Financial Planner
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Tom Fox VP for Leadership and Innovation, Partnership for Public Service
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