The General Services Administration’s decision to abandon a 50-year old conference franchise, known as IRMCO, in favor of a new one-day symposium dedicated to advancing acquisition, proved to be a winning move for GSA Thursday and a step forward for the acquisition community.

The new forum may have done more to reveal than relieve the strains that exist between federal acquisition specialists and those they buy for and from. But it did succeed in bringing together many of the government’s top acquisition and technology officials–and more than 600 government and industry executives–to focus on ways to improve how the federal government buys technology.

GSA Administrator Martha Johnson set a determined tone for the forum. Stressing the need for GSA and the acquisition community at large “to be exceedingly efficient” in acquiring goods and services for the federal government, Johnson also emphasized the importance for acquisition specialists to adjust to a world where services and assets are increasingly shared.

Speaking at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Washington yesterday morning, Johnson expressed her own surprise at the things people are willing to rent or share on an as-needed basis, including not just cars-by-the-hour, but toys and men’s ties, as a harbinger of an evolving consumption model in society that has implications for the federal procurement community.

“We need to face – and face down – the barriers to adopt this more sharing culture,” Johnson said. “We need to get it out in the open, and be honest with each other about the opportunities and the risks of moving in this direction. And more importantly: We need to know how to do it better.”

“The government can find so much more capability if we can pool its purchasing powers to drive down costs and improve results,” she said.

Johnson pointed to GSA’s own most recent efforts in that direction with a new generation of contract vehicle for complex, integrated professional services that include an information technology component. Called OASIS–or One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services–the new approach is an attempt to deal with projects that require multiple service disciplines, in a faster, more flexible way, using task orders.

Government’s engagement with industry has gotten worse.” – Former FSA commissioner Jim Williams

However, perhaps the larger message of the Acquisition Excellence forum, which GSA co-hosted with the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council, was simply in giving acquisition and IT a higher profile platform for discussing what needs to be done to support the rapid technology changes buffeting government agencies.

The genesis of the forum took root last year when GSA’s Kathleen Turco, associate administrator for governmentwide policy, concluded that after five decades of government executive retreats, IRMCO – the Interagency Resources Management Conference – had lost its spark. Perhaps more to the point, IRMCO no longer fit GSA’s new model of environmental and workplace efficiency at a time when a raft of issues needed greater collaborative focus. That led GSA to team up with the ACT-IAC and the decision to focus on federal acquisition practices.

Indeed Thursday’s forum underscored the continuing frustration percolating within government and between industry and federal contracting officers about the federal government’s acquisition process.

A recurring part of that frustration stems from what is widely seen as the diminishing degree of communications between industry and federal acquisition specialists.

“Over past few years, government’s engagement with industry has gotten worse,” said Jim Williams, senior vice president at Daon, and formerly commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service.

Williams attributed that deterioration to two factors. One is a continuing lack of trust in the business community to share proprietary ideas. But the other has been a rising fear among procurement personnel over the risks of contract protests or the scrutiny of possible inspector general reports. That has resulted in an environment where “everything has to be in writing.”

Imagine, Williams said, working with a builder to build your home, and the only communication that takes place is in writing.

That shortchanges government program and procurement teams from finding out what’s possible and developing better-informed requirement documents, he said.

Mark Day, director of GSA’s Office of Strategic Programs, agreed that the interpretation of Federal Acquisition Rules has perhaps grown too extreme–and even beyond what was intended. The pendulum he suggested has perhaps swung too far toward the belief that “if it’s not expressly allowed (by FAR guidelines), it must be forbidden.”

A second major source of tension in the community is taking place within agencies, as acquisition departments are increasingly under the gun to keep up with demands from program offices and information technology departments to build IT systems in smaller, more agile chunks or increasingly, buy IT services by the drink.

But IT departments bent on developing specialized systems need to take some responsibility for challenges faced by today’s acquisition teams, said Kshemendra Paul, program manager, Information Sharing Environment in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. He stressed the benefits of moving toward a standards-based approach to IT, which would also streamline procurements.

“There are two things that drive 80% of the risk and 60% of cost of big IT systems,” he said. “It’s the legacy point-to-point interfaces…and the homegrown identity management systems.”

He noted how a standards-based approach helped local law enforcement agencies participate in the FBI’s National Data Exchange system, by lowering the set up costs from $250,000 to as little as $10,000.

Paul also challenged the tendency in government to avoid crossing appropriation streams, recalling a popular line from the movie “Ghostbusters,” where the lead agents would warn one another “never to cross the streams” from their proton packs. But, he said, “If we don’t open our eyes and look up, we’re condemned to stay in the stovepipes,” he warned.

Acquisition officials have also made strides in speeding up response rates and in tailoring contract vehicles accommodate more agile acquisitions.

Steve Kempf, GSA’s current FAS commissioner, acknowledged in one executive panel session that the government “has not taken advantage of task order contracts,” and that too often, agencies fall back on the tendency to pursue new contract vehicles.

Perhaps more than anything, the forum also revealed that the connective tissue between acquisition and IT teams needs serious strengthening within agencies at a time when budget cuts, turnover, conflicting demands and legacy systems complicate an already complicated process.

That point was brought into comic relief when several senior agency acquisition and IT officials, including Energy Department CTO Pete Tseronis, DHS program manager Brent Bushey, EPA acquisition manager Oliver Voss, GSA Assistant FSA Commissioner Mary Davie and others performed a not-quite Shakespearian stage play, portraying the worst cases scenario for how procurements come together–and how ideally, they should.

The upshot of the session–and the forum as a whole–is that when all the players know, trust, and can collaborate together, government and the taxpayers get a better value from federal procurements.