Federal contracting officers have to perform almost acrobatic feats to buy technology smartly under current rules, and they take the blame when they simply can’t.
Public and private sector officials this week discussed how much of the onus of federal contracting challenges could be put back on the companies vying for governments awards.
When federal agencies buy anything, they have to comply with an enormous web of regulations that exist for good reasons but weren’t written with, say, cloud computing in mind.
Cloud computing services themselves boast payment flexibilities that seem useful in theory but don’t really work within government rules.
For example, pay-as-you-go pricing seems like a selling point.
"However, there’s no method of actually achieving that,” said Air Force Chief Technology Officer Frank Konieczny, citing the Antideficiency Act, which forbids federal employees from obligating the government to spend money that hasn’t yet been appropriated by Congress.
Cloud offerings save money because they can work like utilities, only charging for services used. This feature has led some agencies to scour Federal Acquisition Regulation clauses about buying actual utilities and trying to adapt them for technology, but procurement staffers take the risks of creativity on themselves.
“Contracting officers don’t like messy,” said Kay Ely, director of information technology schedule programs at the General Services Administration. Like Konieczny, Ely spoke Thursday at a Cloud Computing Caucus event on Capitol Hill.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in the gray area but that’s sometimes an uncomfortable area,” she said. “We operate a lot in our minds in black and white.”
Officials across government acknowledge that the regulations could be improved, but some argue that the current rules do allow for just about everything that needs to get done.
Joanne Woytek, a program manager at NASA, suggested the companies take the current rules into consideration when designing their services and pay structures.
“I would put it on industry to make sure that you have a way -- if you want us to use it, you have to have a way that allows us to control what we do,” she said at the Thursday event. “We need more collaboration with industry and how industry.”