COMMENTARY – Transparency, accountability and auditability are central to the federal push for open government. Nowhere is the need for improvement and reform greater than in the federal procurement process.

Procurement professionals, however, are hamstrung from being able to answer even the most basic Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) audit questions, in terms of the procurement and delivery of services.

Why focus on procurement? This year, the FAR Council will look at its existing rules, to create an even greater obligation for agency accountability.

Up for review is how to reduce the number of competitions resulting in only one offer. This could include improving up-front analysis of bid/no-bid decision factors, and improving government outreach and vendor engagement. The goal is reduced federal exposure to high risk and better pricing and terms and conditions through improved use of competition.

Despite this need for change and improvement, today’s procurement professionals are boxed in by aging technology that cannot adapt to changing requirements. Typical systems are hard coded and unable to be modified – or would require millions of dollars to change or update. And even if such changes were possible, it would take several years to make additional updates to those systems if regulations and policies should change again.

Let’s look at some of the greatest challenges in today’s federal procurement process:

Full transparency across the acquisition lifecycle: Not to oversimplify, but today’s procurement systems often cannot answer basic questions such as “Who has it?”, “Where is it?”, “What part of the process has it gone through?” and “How long has it taken?”

Agility in the platform and the organization: From the procurement perspective, many organizations are stuck in existing processes from which they can’t break free. This makes it impossible to adapt to any new calls for efficiency in terms of time or expense.

Processes to spur open competition: Current antiquated systems and procurement projects are too complicated; small or disadvantaged businesses are often unable to make the investment necessary to pursue or bid on them.

Better tools for younger professionals: New procurement professionals are stepping in to fill the growing ranks of retirees. Unfortunately, best practices often exist only in the heads of the exiting civil servants, not in systems. Technology must encourage and engage young adopters in the workforce, so that they can become productive immediately.

Rapid deployment and speed to market: Anything that happens in the procurement space takes ages to implement. New solutions must be stood up quickly to address the current and impending sweep of procurement improvement and reform.

It’s clear that many of these challenges could be addressed within the federal CIO’s “Cloud First” initiative, using shared services. The unfortunate truth, however, is that many procurement organizations are behind the curve in that regard. They can support the purchase of cloud services, but their own technological infrastructure often lacks cloud capability.

For those organizations that have moved to the cloud, the benefits are nearly immediate, offering savings in time and money.

For example, the General Services Administration recently deployed an acquisition planning wizard in the cloud, designed to be accessible from anywhere – including the mobile environment. The GSA planning wizard addresses the front end of an acquisition, identifying how goods or services may be procured, and feeding into the lifecycle of an acquisition. Created in only a few months because of cloud technology, the wizard provides customers with faster procurement capabilities, and has seen a return on investment in its first year – a fraction of the time of other systems.

The Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) started with 12 procurement systems. Moving to the cloud, they were able to retire six of those 12 systems while increasing collaboration across the agency through a single web-based system for customers, contractors, and administrators to manage all pre-award, award and post-award activities. The remaining established systems now benefit from greater flexibility overall.

The US Marine Corps uses an enterprise procurement portal to send out bids for proposals and to award contracts, even putting out task orders for bid to a long list of customers on its contracting vehicles. By creating a cloud-based solution, the Marine Corps’ return on investment was a first-year cost savings of $9 million, and a 25 percent increase in vendor participation. The service also benefited from a reduction in the time-to-market for the entire procurement process.

Procurement is at the heart of what’s wrong with the way government operates. It takes too long, it’s way too slow, and there is no transparency or visibility. Today’s federal CIOs must focus on improving the procurement process. Adopting a shared services model may be the best way to ensure fast, comprehensive improvement.

Chris O’Connell is Vice President of Federal Sales for Appian.