Changes in IT Procurement Require a Change in Culture

Washington CIO Michael Cockrill says modeling government procurement after the private sector can cause conflict, but there are ways to make it work.

Michael Cockrill, CIO, Washington
David Kidd/e.Republic
About five or six years ago, the state of Washington went through a significant procurement reform process to where now, Washington Technology Solutions (WaTech) is now exempt from procurement regulations that the rest of the state has to follow, according to CIO Michael Cockrill.

At the NASCIO Midyear conference held last month in Arlington, Va., Cockrill told Government Technology that it's neither the law nor the procurement regulations that need to change, "It's actually our culture that needs to be overcome."

The state Legislature, he said, intentionally created WaTech so that it could act like a private-sector company. "We could just find the stuff that we want and buy it and make it as quick as possible," Cockrill said. "We had to write our own policy and have that policy be bought off on, but we don't have a procurement law. We're exempt from it."

Cockrill notes, however, that procurement law is there for a reason — and it's a good reason.

"The public sector spends the people's money almost to the tune of a third of the U.S. economy. It's an enormous amount of money," he said. "And if the government doesn't create a level playing field for people to buy, who ever will? So while we want to act like a private company, we also have to honor that procurement. The background — the rationale — is to make sure that everybody gets an opportunity to do work on the people's dime."

And those two things end up being in conflict, he said, largely because of the culture more than the law.

So Washington has been looking at the way it has structured its own procurement regulations and policy, and then selectively restructuring it to address some of the biggest problems.

"A concrete example is it takes way too long to get a tail circuit [a point-to-multi-point circuit] into a storefront for the Department of Licensing in Spokane," Cockrill said. "It could take up to a year for us to get that done because of the way our contracts are structured."

But the legislative intent was for WaTech to streamline such things, so he said the department is now restructuring both its contracts and procurement regulations with the goal of getting needs met within a week.

"And then we'll go back and go through a longer more even process so that we get both the business need of the agency met and the larger goal of having a level playing field," Cockrill added, "and making sure everybody gets an opportunity to get a contract with the people's money."