The FCW Exit Interview: Robert Burton

Before retiring last week as deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Robert Burton sat down with FCW.

When Robert Burton graduated from law school at the University of Virginia in 1979, he wanted to work in Washington, D.C., and didn’t interview anywhere else. He first attempted to find a job in a congressional office but had no luck.  Then he happened on a legal job in the Defense Logistics Agency, his entrée into federal service.

Burton, who retired last week, said he once had assumed he would be negotiating with defense contractors for his entire career. But in 2001, he left the legal side of acquisition and began working on policy issues, serving as deputy administrator in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He said the move was one of the best decisions of his career.

Here are excerpts from a recent interview with Federal Computer Week senior reporter Matthew Weigelt and Editor-in-Chief Christopher J. Dorobek, in which Burton talked about his past, his role in OFPP and his advice for his successor.

FCW: During your years at OFPP, what significant changes have you seen?

BURTON: I remember giving a speech a couple of years ago to a program management group, and they really were somewhat like, “What are you talking about? We’re not part of the acquisition workforce.”

I believe they now understand they are. I believe we’ve made a major paradigm shift, and we’ve educated the program management community. They are a critical part of the acquisition workforce. Most of the problems that we have, with respect to our acquisitions, occur early on in the acquisition planning. We are not clear with respect to what our contract requirements are, and we don’t explain to the contractor well enough what we’re trying to buy.

If you had to say, “what is the one thing where we really need to improve” — if you have to just pick one thing — it would be writing our requirements in a clear and a more concise fashion. If we can do that well, that will alleviate so many problems in the contract administration phase.

Program managers play a very key role in this and here we weren’t including them in the acquisition workforce?

FCW: Looking over the acquisition policies, do you have any major concerns?

BURTON: One thing I am concerned about as we look toward the future is an overreaction to some of the problems that have been highlighted that, obviously, need to be addressed.

The Congress sometimes has a tendency to overreact, and we see certain themes for the future: increased oversight, increased transparency.

Neither one of those are bad in and of themselves, but anything taken to an extreme can have a devastating impact. I’m somewhat concerned that if there’s too much transparency, if there’s too much oversight, it’s actually going to hurt the system in the long run.

And Congress has a tendency to want to respond and pass laws that at least appear to be correcting the problem. But oftentimes it only exacerbates the problem.

We spend an enormous amount of time preparing reports, generating data. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But to an excess, it really stymies the progress this office can make.

FCW: The number of task-order contracts has grown exponentially since the 1990s. What brought that about?

BURTON: I think one problem we’ve had with task orders and one of the challenges that we’re facing is that it became easy. It was an expedited way of getting services or products.

The cost is less transparency and less competition so we need to try to balance all of those qualities. And that’s tough.

FCW: What words of wisdom would you give to the incoming deputy administrator?

BURTON: First, not to be discouraged in view of the enormous problems that we are facing, realizing that we’ve come a long way. I really do believe the system is much better than it was, even though circumstantially, you wouldn’t think so because of all the problems that have been highlighted.

So do not get discouraged.

Second, be very persistent and dedicated to improving the system, and make sure that you are communicating with the acquisition workforce and playing an inspirational role. I think it’s very important for the acquisition workforce to hear how valuable they are and the fact that they are professionals.

It’s very important for them to hear that from this office because they don’t hear it a whole lot from anyone.