What Are We Doing?
© 2006 FrontLine Defence (Vol 3, No 1)

There’s a lot of talk about reforming the government procurement system these days, if only because of the serious challenge of re-equipping the Canadian Forces in a timely manner. One can only hope that the reformers have a clear idea of what they want to accomplish, and that this goal is the right one.
Procurement reform is, after all, not a new challenge: anyone involved in procurement will tell you of many efforts at ‘reform’ over the years and of the interminable efforts to work within and around ‘the system’ in order to accomplish the required results. Some tales are about vain attempts to tilt at windmills; others involve time-consuming bureaucratic grinding work to accomplish tasks that seem to contribute little to the actual delivery of a product or service; still others involve apparently unplanned, miraculous events that allow faster progress than ever imagined. Why do we have to wait for so long to get trucks or helicopters? Are we spending all our time trying to diversify Canadian industry or are we trying to by trucks and helicopters? If you think things are bad now, you should have been around when we tried to buy the Ross rifle! With such diverse experience and the apparently fruitless attempts to make sense of procurement reform in the past few years, could it be that the reformers are neglecting the first Principle of War? Or if you prefer a business/management approach, have we determined what the heck we are trying to do, anyway?

That there is a problem, let there be no doubt. Too much time and labour is spent carrying out the steps of the process. This is true in the acquisition of virtually any commodity, but in my experience, nowhere is it more accentuated than in the information technology/ information systems arena. In a domain where changes occur monthly, weekly and even daily, it stands to reason that any procurement regime that requires years to bear fruit will inevitably produce products and services that are out of date, and maybe even incapable of the task first envisaged.

Years ago, this was clearly recognized in one sector of the telecommunications disciplines. Rental of telephones and switching systems and the lease of telephone lines and services became the norm. And in recognition of the vital nature of this service in the conduct of military operations and administration, significant financial authority (and accountability) was delegated to levels where the provision could occur in a timely manner. And because there was a virtual monopoly in the supplier side of the equation, and because Canadian industry was a clear leader in this business, service was always up-to-date and ready to serve the requirement. However successful this was, it was still just a way ‘around’ the system, but it did recognize the fundamental point that the aim of the effort was simply to produce timely tele­communications services, nothing else.

This ‘workaround’ solution obviously can’t be applied universally. As the informa­tion age developed, fierce competition in the computer world, as well as the relatively inexpensive nature of common, utility-type software caused an entirely different market dynamic that was initially less amenable to leasing solutions. And yet we tried to apply the same procurement rules to this new set of commodities, resulting in extended delays, litigious dramas and unpredictable real costs.

Faced with clear evidence that the rules being applied to buying trucks and helicopters were even less suited to the acquisition of software based systems, many countries took steps to limit the damage. Various evolutionary acquisition schemes grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, involving close integration of the requirements development with the production of the product. Many were more or less successful. Most had to be introduced as pilot projects or trials; many eventually foundered on the rocks of not fitting into the accepted process for everything else. A trial that satisfied the customer but ­didn’t fit the bureaucratic mode was obviously heresy, and should be summarily corrected!

In the meantime, the procurement environment has become even less salubrious. In vain attempts to avoid bitter legal disputes and political pressures, specifications became more and more detailed, forcing more process time and potential error. The ability of industry to respond to simple performance-oriented requirements became more limited, as ­initiative was stifled in order to fit the ­pattern. Cutbacks in government procurement staffs diluted the expertise and ­common sense that had grown up over the years. And fears of noisy scandal and political incorrectness prevented the traditional kind of social interaction that would allow new staff to find out what was going on in the real world – to find out what industry was really capable of providing.

Life has been going on, however. Standing offers, however labour-intensive to put in place, at least help people to do their jobs. And we still need big ticket items such as trucks and helicopters.

One disturbing trend in the immediate past has been the reliance on “urgent operational requirements” to justify significant shortcuts in the procurement process. Disturbing, because at times such shortcuts are accompanied by shortfalls in the overall system costing and capabilities that might have been avoided with a less frantic approach. Disturbing, because the potential for spending inefficiencies is far higher. Disturbing, because eventually everything becomes urgent, and the system again bogs down under too many high priorities.

So what’s to be done about reforming the procurement process? We have seen any number of earnest attempts to sort it out in the past two decades. We have seen a major government-wide review of the subject that came up with recommendations such as the adoption of a “corporate” approach. Current reviews are looking carefully at eliminating some of the approval and re-approval layers in the ­system, whose only real purpose may be to allow political pressure to be applied. But it looks as if we may be getting increasingly more, instead of less, process. So we come back to the beginning… what the heck are we trying to do, anyway??

The people working on the reviews and the procurement reform are quite clear in what they believe the aim of the system is. The primary purpose is to ensure that the government gets the best value for money (or words to that effect). Unfortunately, this gets warped into what’s the cheapest solution; and how do we stay out of court? How do we live up to the latest perception of what our international trade agreements mean? Oh yes, and far down that list of desired qualities of the procurement system is something that deals with how well the result will satisfy the requirement!!

Surely the fundamental aim of buying something, even when you’re a government, should be to get something that is needed to do the assigned job… Yes it’s important to get the best value, and no responsible departmental official (well, few, anyway) would deny that. But what good is it to have a great system – accounting religiously for each looney being spent, staying out of court and keeping some of the less than far-sighted politicians happy – if the resulting product doesn’t do the job, or worse still, appears to be right for the job but fails with disastrous consequences (at the worst possible time).

If the reformers can’t get the primacy of satisfying the requirement way up high in their efforts, I’m afraid that our loyal public servants will be forever condemned to feeding the procurement bureaucracy, and the eventual users of the goods and service procured run the real risk of not succeeding in their endeavours, because of unsuitable, untimely equipment and support.

It’s “not for nothing” that Selection and Maintenance of the Aim is the first principle of war.

MGen (ret) John Leech, former ADM(IM), recently retired as GM of AFCEA Canada, and is a regular columnist and contributor to FrontLine Defence magazine.
© FrontLine Defence 2006