This June, Michael Wooten, the Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), recorded an interview with Katie Malague of the Partnership for Public Service. They discussed how his career and education have prepared him to direct policy for the world’s largest buying organization, his assessment of the acquisition landscape in 2020, and advice he would give to agencies about using and procuring new technologies.
Wooten’s career prior to his role at OFPP has blended operational and academic experiences that together help him understand the complexity of defense and federal acquisition.
Let’s start with this fun fact: Wooten is a graduate of Naval Postgraduate School (class of 1997), where he majored in acquisition and contract management. (This was before the Acquisition Research Program (ARP) formally existed, but we still claim him as one of ours.) In his words, that education “represented a major career shift.” Prior to attending NPS, Wooten spent 15 years as a Marine, first as an enlisted air traffic controller then, after receiving his bachelor’s degree, as a ground supply officer. After graduating NPS, he held a variety of contracting positions and spent 10 years at Defense Acquisition University teaching, managing operations, and leading a large research project on the acquisition workforce.
Wooten’s time in higher education clearly made him a better thinker, both more informed about fundamentals like contract management and the Federal Acquisition Regulation and more capable of understanding and managing complexity.
Many of ARP’s students are, like Wooten, supply corps officers well-versed in the challenges of acquisition logistics. As Wooten said, this work “helped me understand how you procure items and understand the lifecycle of equipment. It was very helpful to me to get an early grounding across the acquisition disciplines.” Today, as the federal government and DoD are reassessing the composition and integrity of the supply chain, this expertise is invaluable for managing acquisitions in a way that not only delivers warfighting capabilities but also maintains national security and production efficiencies.
Higher education gives students the opportunity to do a deep dive into acquisitions. Wooten wrote a dissertation on the competencies required for contract specialists and was guided by the expertise of his third reader, the honorable Jacques Gansler, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics, and technology. His grasp of policy and practice was profoundly strengthened as a result.
Moving from his academic experiences to his current priorities as Administrator, Wooten repeated a common refrain – that the acquisition workforce needs a culture shift, focusing less on compliance and more on mission and managing the “iron triangle” of cost, schedule and performance.
“Let go of the mindset that we are the cop of acquisition and procurement; we are more business advisors. Some agencies have made that shift; others have almost an icky feeling that somehow I am relinquishing my duties of ensuring compliance and allowing lapses of ethics. It couldn’t be further from the truth if I put the best tools on the compliance check.”
Wooten also talked about the ambitious Cross-Agency Priority goal of frictionless acquisition, which he leads with Soraya Correa and Berry Berkowitz. The goal is to remove well-known barriers separating the federal government from commercial efficiencies and best practices.
This need for increasing speed and synching up federal government with the commercial marketplace—and the challenge of meeting it—has been acknowledged and addressed by many reformers in recent years, including the Section 809 Panel, which produced a series of recommendations that begin by simplifying existing regulations for commercial buying and conclude with a vision for how to radically simplify all commercial transactions under $15 million. (See recommendations #1-4 and #35.)
When asked if he had advice for agencies about using and procuring emerging technology, Wooten shared some real gems, starting with a reminder of what not to do. “There are great innovation tools out there. Don’t go toy shopping. Stay mission focused. Get the things that can help you, and understand how it can help you get from A to B. And B needs to be clearly a goal of yours.”
Wooten ended the conversation by boiling down organizational leadership to a simple message that we’ve heard many times before—and which is still a work in progress for the federal government: “With all the technology out there, you still can’t escape one immutable fact: people make the organization work. You hire and reward good people. That’s it.”