Acquisition Planning

Opportunities to Build Strong Foundations for Better Services Contracts

GAO-11-672, Aug 9, 2011

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Civilian agencies obligated over $135 billion in fiscal year 2010 for services --80 percent of total civilian spending on contracts. Services acquisitions have suffered from inadequate planning, which can put budget, schedule, and quality at risk. GAO was asked to examine how civilian agencies conduct acquisition planning for services contracts and assessed (1) the extent to which agencies have developed policies and procedures for acquisition planning, (2) how agencies have carried out acquisition planning, and (3) the extent to which agencies' guidance identifies when to begin and how long acquisition planning should take. GAO reviewed acquisition planning at the four civilian agencies with the most spending on professional, administrative, and management support services. GAO also reviewed Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) provisions; agency regulations and guidance; and 24 selected contracts; and interviewed agency officials.

The Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Homeland Security (DHS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have established policies that set different requirements and levels of oversight for acquisition planning. Acquisition planning elements--including written acquisition plans, requirements development, cost estimation, and incorporation of lessons learned--are critical to the process. HHS, DHS, and NASA require written acquisition plans that align closely with elements defined in the FAR--USAID does not. All four agencies' guidance include preparing cost estimates and requirements documents during acquisition planning, and DHS and NASA guidance include the consideration of lessons learned from previous contracts in acquisition planning. Agencies' requirements for oversight vary, including who reviews and approves acquisition planning documents. Agencies did not always take full advantage of acquisition planning to develop a strong foundation for the contracts GAO reviewed, but some have identified ways to encourage improved acquisition planning. Key planning steps were not performed, could have been better used to improve acquisition planning, or were not documented for future use. In particular, GAO found that agencies faced challenges defining their needs, documented cost estimates to varying degrees, and documented lessons learned to a limited extent. GAO identified several practices agencies use to support program staff with acquisition planning, including hiring personnel who specialize in procurement business issues and cost and price analysis and providing templates to assist in preparing key documents. Most agency components have established time frames for the last phase of acquisition planning--beginning when the program and contracting offices finalize a request for contract package. None of the agency components, however, have measured and provided guidance on the time frames needed for program offices to develop and obtain approvals of key acquisition planning documents during the pre-solicitation phase--which serves as the foundation for the acquisition process--or to finalize these documents in collaboration with contracting offices during the procurement request phase. GAO recommends that USAID establish requirements for written acquisition plans and that each agency enhance guidance for cost estimating and lessons learned; DHS, NASA, and USAID concurred. GAO also recommends that each agency establish time frames for pre-solicitation activities. NASA and USAID generally concurred but DHS did not, noting that existing policy states that planning should begin as soon as a need is identified. GAO clarified its recommendation to emphasize pre-solicitation planning activities. HHS had no comments.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Recommendation: To allow sufficient time for acquisition planning, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their components' procurement offices to collect information about the time frames needed for pre-solicitation acquisition planning activities to establish time frames for when program officials should begin acquisition planning.

Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To allow sufficient time for acquisition planning, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their components' procurement offices to collect information about the time frames needed for pre-solicitation acquisition planning activities to establish time frames for when program officials should begin acquisition planning.

Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To allow sufficient time for acquisition planning, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their components' procurement offices to collect information about the time frames needed for pre-solicitation acquisition planning activities to establish time frames for when program officials should begin acquisition planning.

Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To take fuller advantage of important acquisition planning elements and to ensure that information is available for future use, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their procurement offices to ensure that agency and component guidance clearly define the role of cost estimating and incorporating lessons learned in acquisition planning, as well as specific requirements for what should be included in documenting these elements in the contract file.

Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To take fuller advantage of important acquisition planning elements and to ensure that information is available for future use, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their procurement offices to ensure that agency and component guidance clearly define the role of cost estimating and incorporating lessons learned in acquisition planning, as well as specific requirements for what should be included in documenting these elements in the contract file.

Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To take fuller advantage of important acquisition planning elements and to ensure that information is available for future use, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their procurement offices to ensure that agency and component guidance clearly define the role of cost estimating and incorporating lessons learned in acquisition planning, as well as specific requirements for what should be included in documenting these elements in the contract file.

Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To take fuller advantage of important acquisition planning elements and to ensure that information is available for future use, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their procurement offices to ensure that agency and component guidance clearly define the role of cost estimating and incorporating lessons learned in acquisition planning, as well as specific requirements for what should be included in documenting these elements in the contract file.

Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To promote improved acquisition planning, the Administrator of USAID should direct the Office of Acquisition and Assistance to develop templates and guidance to help program officials prepare reliable cost estimates.

Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To promote improved acquisition planning, the Administrator of USAID should direct the Office of Acquisition and Assistance establish standard acquisition plan formats that align with the FAR.

Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To promote improved acquisition planning, the Administrator of USAID should direct the Office of Acquisition and Assistance to establish requirements specifying dollar thresholds for when written plans should be developed, documented, and approved.

Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

Recommendation: To allow sufficient time for acquisition planning, the Secretaries of HHS and DHS and the Administrators of NASA and USAID should direct their components' procurement offices to collect information about the time frames needed for pre-solicitation acquisition planning activities to establish time frames for when program officials should begin acquisition planning.

Agency Affected: United States Agency for International Development

Status: Open

Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.