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Can Time Limits Improve Acquisition Documentation?

time limits calendarI believe there’s a truism in acquisition: the work’s not done until the paperwork is finished.  How many of you have tried to get an acquisition through the approval process only to be stymied because some of the critical Acquisition Documentation was not up to date or was missing completely?

As one who teaches acquisition and program management, I continually try to instill in the students an appreciation for the value of the acquisition documentation.  However, regardless of the examples of problems that I give them, some think they can get by without doing it right.  I say they should think again.

An Alternative Approach

One Government agency that I work with attempts to solve the problem by mandating the maximum time to complete each step in the process of preparing, reviewing, and approving the document.  Once you receive initial approval to proceed with the acquisition, you have “X” days to get the various required documents approved.  For example: After the Acquisition Strategy is approved, you have 70 days to get your Acquisition Plan approved.  Interim milestones include first draft by Day 30, internal reviews done by Day 45, revisions completed by Day 60, and final approval by Day 70.

Will It Work?

The schedule I’m describing hasn’t been in place long enough to show measureable results.  I think it allows enough time for each of the activities, but I see a few potential roadblocks:

  • Reliance on others to meet deadlines – will the Project Management Office (PMO) personnel perform the necessary tasks in a timely manner?
  • Competing priorities – my experience is that some technical/operational people in the PMO are so focused on acquiring what they need that acquisition documentation feels like an unnecessary impediment.
  • Hasty or incomplete preparation – as a result, they resist preparing the documentation or prepare an unacceptable output.
  • Precedents that discourage documentation – even those who understand the requirement for documents such as an Acquisition Plan believe they can sometimes get by without getting the Acquisition Plan approved if experience has shown them to be correct.

Most agencies have written policy that states that the Acquisition Plan must be approved before the Request for Proposal (RFP) is released.  Yet, RFPs have been issued and even some contract awards have been made without an approved Acquisition Plan.  I asked three former contracting officers who each said that if the procurement was for mission critical goods or services, it would proceed regardless of the state of the acquisition documentation.

That brings me to my final roadblock:

  • Few repercussions for missing deadlines – what will happen to someone who doesn’t meet the prescribed times for completing the acquisition documentation?  Based on my experience, not much.

My Solution

Each person in a program management office must understand that documentation is more than a necessary evil.  Program Managers can set the tone:

  • Communicate clearly about WHY documentation is important. The acquisition documents are a reflection of the careful, critical, and collaborative thought of the project management team.  Completing them demonstrates to upper management that the project is thoroughly planned and has a reasonable chance of success.
  • Lead by example.  Use the planning techniques you have learned and show your subordinates how they can learn to be better planners.
  • Encourage education.  Almost every government agency offers its employees courses on the planning process.  Every academic institution that offers management courses stresses the importance of good planning.  Use your planning skills to make time for everyone to get trained.

What Would You Do?

If it were up to you, how would you get the acquisition community to pay attention to required acquisition documentation?