| Introduction

Introduction #

If you’re trying to get stuff done in government, much of your job will depend on the success of hired contractors. The system of how the government hires contractors is called “procurement” or “acquisition,” and it is very different from the sort of buying experience anyone is used to outside of government. From day one of your job, you’ve been warned about how dangerous, or complicated, or time-consuming procurement can be. It looks hard. Also, let’s face it: it sounds boring.

And, to be fair, government procurement looks hard because it is hard. The acquisition workforce puts a ton of effort into making procurement work precisely because the regulations are complex, the expectations are high, and the risks of getting things wrong are real.

That said, once you peel back a few layers from the procurement system, you can begin to understand how things work, and you can build intuitions of how to get stuff done. Some of us even believe that learning and understanding procurement can be deeply enjoyable. But first you must peel back the layers.This book is intended to help you peel those layers as fast as possible.

The goals of this book #

Quite simply, this book exists to help public servants quickly come up to speed on how to get shit done in federal tech procurement. If we do achieve nothing else but help feds start speaking the same language, that would be enough.

Having public servants speak the same language is vital because, unfortunately, there is a fair amount of distrust and frustration among public servants when it comes to procurement. It is an all too common tragedy that, when things don’t go well, the program office will blame the CIO’s office, the CIO’s office will blame the contracting office, the contracting office will blame the lawyers, and the lawyers will blame everyone for not reaching out sooner. But if everyone understood where the others were coming from, a lot of this blame and frustration can be avoided.

We also hope though, that the book can deepen the relationship between feds and the contractors they work with. The truth is that there’s a bunch of mistrust between feds and contractors, and that mistrust is the product of decades of miscommunication, misunderstanding, or worse. But it doesn’t need to be that way. If feds can better understand where contractors are coming from, and why contractors behave the way they do, it can help repair trust.

To that end, this book will endeavor to be descriptive in nature, rather than prescriptive. There will be some best practices described in the book, but this is decidedly not intended to be an aspirational book about what procurement ought to be like. Instead, we intend to meet the system where it is, and help people recognize its patterns. We believe that a clear-eyed understanding of why the system operates the way it does will enable growth and smarter movement forward.

Finally, we hope this book is an accessible and, at times, enjoyable read. The Federal Acquisition Regulations (covered in Chapter One) are voluminous and dense. This book will try and persuade you that once you get past the various procurement shibboleths, it’s actually a fascinating and rich subject matter.

The anti-goals of this book #

This book is not intended to be a replacement for actual procurement training. If you are going to join the acquisition workforce, you’re going to need to go through formal training, likely through the Federal Acquisition Institute.

This book is also not intended to reflect the official policy of the government. For example, one of the things that we’ll discuss in various parts of the book is how the system is gamed. We don’t endorse those practices necessarily, but you need to understand them if you want to be effective, guard against them, innovate from them, or whatever. If this were an official policy document, agency counsel would never let us admit that people game the system. (Narrator voice: people game the system.)

This book will not try to cover all types of procurement. We’re only going to cover tech procurement. Why? Because it’s what we know best and it’s also close enough to other types of procurement that it’s close enough. But if there’s some specific nuance around, I don’t know, purchasing spiral notebooks, this book might not even get you in the ballpark.

Finally, this book is not going to make you an expert. The only way you can truly become an expert is to deeply engage the craft of government acquisition. That said, we think the book can get you started on that path if you choose, and help you feel less afraid of tech procurement.

Why us and why now #

The authors of this book are former federal employees in government tech who care deeply about the success of current and future government employees. We are government contractors who have responded to, won and lost, and delivered on federal contracts. We are friends of those who do the work.

We decided to write this book because, as the new administration transitions in the executive branch, we realized that hundreds — maybe thousands — of individuals will be thrust into making decisions that will involve procurement. And, quite simply, the career public servants who are already there don’t have the time to help explain how this works.

We know that there is much urgent work to be done. Let’s get to it.