How Trump Can 'Shake Up' the Business of Government; Augustine, Davis & Gordon

How Trump Can “Shake Up” the Business of Government

Norm Augustine, Tom Davis & Bart Gordon

February 15, 2017

A link to the op-ed on RealClear Politics can be found here.


President Donald Trump, a man who comes from an entirely private-sector background, started living up to his promise to shake up Washington before even taking office last month. He took to social media to fire across the bows of the automobile, pharmaceutical, air conditioning, and aerospace industries, among others. He has expressed particular concern over how the government and those who supply it do business.

Putting aside his unorthodox methods, Trump is not wrong that there is much about government procurement that needs fixing. Our new chief executive has promised to reshape the government, improving the efficiency of a wide range of agencies and services, from strengthening U.S. military capabilities to modernizing the nation’s physical and digital infrastructure. To keep those promises his administration will have to reform how the U.S. government acquires goods and services, for the same reason that Willie Sutton infamously robbed banks: because that’s where the money is…or, at least, a lot of it.

For too long, government procurement has been seen as a purely industrial process. In fact, in the information age what the government increasingly needs is functional, advanced technology, highly experienced personnel, and streamlined approaches to contracting. Taking into account the unintended consequences of past reforms and acknowledging the risk of adding even more layers of new reforms, pragmatic steps can be taken to improve these critical aspects of the procurement process.        

The first necessary step is properly diagnosing cultural problems and inefficiencies inherent in the current system and developing targeted measures to fix those failings. Most importantly, the next administration needs to instill a “mission-oriented” culture throughout the federal government. The current “risk-averse” culture has stifled innovation, stressed the relationship between the private sector and the federal government, and erected unnecessary legal barriers throughout the procurement process.      

After research of past reforms and in-depth discussions with policymakers at the federal and state levels as well as with private sector stakeholders, it is clear that fundamental problems with the current procurement system have been exacerbated several issues: an unpredictable budget process; a failure to keep pace with technological advancements; and a shift in what the federal government buys. Moving forward, the president’s team needs to address both the foundational problems and the changes that are adding strains to the procurement system.

First, with a Trump administration and Republican control of both houses of Congress, there must be a return to budgetary predictability. The impact of this budgetary uncertainty is well documented. Years of continuing resolutions and omnibus spending bills have resulted in agency personnel wasting time drawing up multiple budgets in anticipation of different political outcomes. This uncertainty has also prevented procurement personnel from modernizing outdated systems and integrating more advanced tools — such as ranging from cutting edge cybersecurity to more fundamental updates of legacy systems — into existing architectures.

Second, the new administration needs to increase support, training, and educational programs for the federal procurement workforce. Here the Trump administration can start by updating the curriculum at Defense Acquisition University; continuing to implement and improve the Obama administration’s “Better Buying Power” initiatives at the Pentagon; and focusing on the development of training programs that clarify the roles and responsibilities of procurement personnel at every level. Well-meaning conflict of interest rules have all but eliminated the possibility of public servants having a working knowledge of industrial practices.

Creative solutions are necessary to solve 21st century problems, making it imperative that the new administration incorporate the lessons that we have identified from key innovation hubs such as Silicon Valley, Boston, and Huntsville, Alabama. There are also lessons to be learned from successful governmental programs that have made innovation their hallmark and adopted streamlined procedures and forward-thinking cultures. Examples such as DARPA, U.S. Special Operations Command, In-Q-Tel, ARPA-Energy, and the U.S. Digital Service prove that with the right incentives and culture, government agencies can develop new capabilities and field them in a timely manner.

Finally, with the advice of tech leaders, President Trump and his administration can help ensure that our government procurement processes can better harness technological innovations that originate in the private sector. The vitality and innovation of the U.S. technology sector is the envy of the world, and improved dialogue and collaboration between government and technology leaders is needed to ensure that that the U.S. government can keep pace with that innovation. We can no longer tolerate the growing gap between a private sector that sprints out ahead in terms of technological advancements and a government procurement system that is increasingly bogged down in procedures largely originating in patches designed to fix specific problems of the past.

For over a year and a half the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC) has examined these issues and identified reforms that can serve as a useful first step to change procurement policy and culture for the better. President Trump has an opportunity to achieve lasting change in this area; it should be at the top of his to-do list.

Norm Augustine is the Former Chairman & CEO of Lockheed Martin. Tom Davis and Bart Gordon are both former Members of the U.S. House of Representatives. The three serve as co-chairs of the CSPC’s ongoing procurement project entitled “The Better Business of Government.”