NASA’s Procurement Mindset: The Complacency of Good Enough

written by David Mixson

I was one of five voting members on two different Source Evaluation Boards (SEBs). I enjoyed working with the people on both boards, but the process was painfully slow and engulfed with fear.

I explained the SEB process in more depth in How NASA Does Procurements. Here, I’ll give a quick overview to get us started.

  1. The SEB writes the Request for Proposal (RFP) that specifically defines what NASA wants.
  2. Interested companies write proposals (bids) against the RFP. 
  3. The SEB evaluates the submitted proposals per the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) guidelines and scores them on past performance, cost, and mission suitability.
  4. The SEB presents its findings to NASA managers, procurement officials, and the Source Selection Authority (SSA).
  5. The SSA selects the winner.

Fear of Getting a Protest

On the two SEBs I was on, it felt like our procurement advisors and NASA managers lived in a constant state of fear that our decision would be protested by one of the companies that lost—and they engrained this fear into all of the voting SEB members.

So much so that fear was at the core of everything we did.

As a result, steps that should have taken us days to complete took us weeks. And steps that should have taken us weeks took us months.

One afternoon in frustration at how long things were taking, I blurted out to the other board members:

“Listen. There’s nothing we can do that guarantees we won’t get a protest. Let’s do our job and keep moving!”

Selecting the company that wins a billion-dollar contract is an important task. But fear shouldn’t have a seat at the table while doing it.

Lack of Urgency

During my five or so years sequestered working on SEBs, I don’t recall a single time that anyone—advisors, managers, procurement folks—ever suggested to the voting members that time mattered. In other words, we were never encouraged to speed up the process or to streamline anything.

Honestly, there were times during the process that I felt we were being encouraged to take longer to evaluate the proposals, partly because taking more time made things appear we were doing things fairly.

I imagine this lack of urgency by NASA senior managers, advisors, and attorneys was related to the previous topic of fear. None of our advisors wanted to be in the cross hairs of a finding like this from the Government Accounting Office (GAO) if we were protested:

“The GAO found that the SEB felt enormous pressure from the hosting organization to complete the scoring. Subsequent to this finding, GAO is ruling that all findings should be thrown out and the RFP reissued.”

Complacency of Good Enough

After spending so much time in the bowels of the NASA source selection process, I finally realized that procurement folks who do this all the time think the NASA procurement process works great just the way it is.

In other words, in all my time working NASA procurements, I never met a single person in procurement who thought the NASA procurement process needed to be improved in any meaningful way.

NASA managers who think the current way NASA does procurements is good enough are likely the same folks who assume NASA will exist in twenty years; the same folks who don’t understand, care, or notice that SpaceX landed two booster segments back on the launch pad on the first launch of Falcon Heavy; the same ones who assume that SLS will make it even though it doesn’t have reusability and is over budget and behind schedule; and the same folks who think working at NASA is an entitlement.

To believe a paper-process that takes three years to complete can’t be improved is arrogant—and ignorant. I’m afraid today’s NASA is both.

Today’s NASA Compared to Apollo

Think about it this way. NASA landed men on the moon seven years after Kennedy gave us the challenge. At that time, rocket motors hardly existed. Neither did a vehicle that could carry us. NASA built a new vehicle (along with new motors and a full-scale test stand) and flew Saturn multiple times—eventually landing men on the moon seven years later.

Today’s NASA couldn’t make it through the procurement processes to do all that in seven years.

Procurement Matters

On my second SEB, I was the only voting member who had served on a board before. With one under my belt, I understood the process and made it my goal to improve it by one percent. Surely, I could do that, I figured.

I was wrong. In the end, I’m not sure I changed a thing.

At best, the way NASA does procurements is slow and inefficient. At worst, it’s destroying any chance of greatness. Improving the way NASA does business is a central component to making NASA viable again—and for empowering New Space.

I’ll present some ideas on how to do this in future articles.

NOTE: Before we leave the topic of procurements, let me make this point. During my time on two SEBs, I never saw anything biased toward or against a company. Not once. NASA’s procurement process works great if your only metric is fairness. It’s horrible if you want it to be effective. For NASA to be great, we need it to be both.

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About the Author

David Mixson writes about Old Space and New Space. He worked as an engineer at NASA for more than thirty years and is the author of three books.

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