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One thing the next president will face is something that would put any red-blooded candidate to sleep: federal acquisition. So my recommendation for Messrs. McCain and Obama is this: Start figuring out who your federal procurement policy point person is going to be.
Acquisition doesn’t put me to sleep. Like a secular Talmud, the Federal Acquisition Regulation is a rich, deep pool of accumulated wisdom and reaction to long-ago events. Who could be bored by that? So from a strictly intellectual standpoint, the devising and execution of acquisition strategies is far more than a technical or bureaucratic exercise.
It’s an art form.
It’s an art form in the sense that a practitioner has available a wide palette of tools and approaches. Typically, acquisition officers, consulting with their program team counterparts, spend a lot of time deciding on the best strategy for a particular buy. Cost-plus? Fixed Price? Requirements contract? Task order series? Will it require a competitive demonstrations?
But—and this is where acquisition morphs into its more bureaucratic and technical phase—once a way is chosen and vendors notified, the agency is obligated to stick with its strategy to the letter.
And this is what is so puzzling about the Air Force’s tanker deal. The service needs to buy 179 new tankers, in three lots over the next 20 years. Hence the designation KC-X for the first lot, followed by KC-Y and KC-Z.
GAO, in sustaining Boeing’s protest, threw the book at the Air Force.
I’ll start at the conclusion: The right thing to happen now is for the Air Force to start over, and revaluate the bids according to its stated criteria.
What it must also do is shut its ears to members of Congress screeching about buy-American or American jobs. Those things don’t apply to this acquisition.
To its credit, the GAO stuck to the Air Force’s conduct relative to how it said it would conduct the competition between Boeing and Northrop Grumman. Its 67-page report upholding the protest didn’t get into the stupid issues about which the politicians from Washington state and elsewhere have gotten so exercised. Issues like jobs and “foreign” competition. They’re stupid because there’s not much difference in how many U.S. jobs would ensue with either contractor. They are irrelevant because such considerations aren’t included in the FAR or in this acquisition.
No, the Air Force got flak for not doing in the evaluation what it said it would do in the solicitation. For instance, it gave extra weight to the fact that the Northrop proposed platform is bigger and will carry more fuel than Boeing’s. Each bidder had a threshold and a maximum performance to meet in various functions, but above the maximum it wasn’t supposed to matter.
But the Air Force went ahead and made it matter, so the Northrop’s bigger plane—the infamous Airbus-derivative—got too much credit relative to the smaller Boeing 767 derivative. In so doing “the agency violated the solicitation’s evaluation provision that ‘no consideration will be provided for exceeding [key performance parameter] KPP objectives,’” GAO stated.
By the same token, the Air Force blithely ignored Northrop’s refusal to meet a material solicitation requirement—namely that it establish an “organic” maintenance depot within two years. Even worse, the Air Force didn’t bother to find out for sure if the Northrop plane was even capable of refueling all of the aircraft it would be required to—even drones.
It goes on and on. GAO did not uphold every count of Boeing’s protest, but the tone and weight of report is undisputable. The Air Force, already in political trouble, screwed up a huge and politically sensitive acquisition.