Friday Rant: Coupa's Free Government Giveaway — If Only It Was This Easy

Earlier this week, Coupa, one of my favorite upstart vendors in the sector, embarked on what can only be described as a superficially ingenious marketing giveaway: a six-month free trial to its software for all government agencies and departments. According to the website describing the offer, "The Coupa Software Six Months to Smarter Spending program offers government agencies a FREE six-month subscription to Coupa e-Procurement to rein in spending and establish control over inefficient purchasing practices." While I applaud Coupa for not only trying to be part of the solution to government spending rather than a problem -- not to mention for their creative marketing -- I have very little hope of this amounting to any more than a marketing stunt, at least at the Federal level. Which is an absolute bloody shame. And the reason it will fail speaks to why our Federal procurement programs are way too complicated, inefficient and out of touch with taxpayer needs in the first place.

Let's start with the basics. Is Coupa a GSA approved vendor? They weren't as of 8:35 CDT on Wednesday night when I last checked. To have any sustainable chance of serving the Federal government -- or at least to take their money -- you've got to get on the list. So even if Coupa got a contract (or many) serving Federal agencies and departments for free, they'd still need to figure out how to get on the list to eventually start charging them. Next, let's talk about selling software to the Federal government let alone begging them to take it for free. I doubt Coupa knows any of the inner workings here or how firms like Carahsoft serve as golden gate keepers with golden rolodexes. Nope, they're too innocent and too West Coast.

Second, even though we can all agree reducing Federal maverick spending is a noble goal, when it comes to DC, we need to start with the 80/20 rule and look at the big kahuna(s) first -- procurement policy, sourcing strategy and negotiated prices. While an eProcurement platform is certainly a worthwhile investment -- and Booz, CSC and others have gotten paid small fortunes to slam in customized purchasing systems -- it's not what's needed most. No, what the government needs is to do away with the ridiculously complicated legacy rules of procurement. Volume 1 of the FAR is now a 19.5 MB PDF file. That’s right. It takes the government 19.5 MB and 1,969 pages (but who's counting) to simply explain its purchasing policy. And despite the Fed's leverage, they rarely get the best deal because the sellers must publish their pricing (which becomes a great benchmark for large private sector companies from which to negotiate). But don't get me started on this one, because I might not stop.

Let's get real. Federal procurement does not have to be the multi-headed hydra that it's become. Changing the beast is something we could do right here. And I'll try. The central philosophy behind Federal agency and department procurement should be to get the best value -- note "value" could be interpreted in many ways -- for every taxpayer dollar spent. Efficiency and automation must be part of this equation (i.e., Coupa and other eProcurement vendors). But the real problem rests with the utter complexity of how the government defines and pursues supplier recruitment, selection, strategic sourcing and ongoing vendor management (hint: how they define/explain it is not the same way we think about it in the commercial sector). Obama and team should make it their legacy to re-write the FAR and to keep it under 100 pages. It's possible, people. Have HOPE.

At the end of the day, while we should commend Coupa's ambitions, I wish they would have printed out the FAR, killing a few trees in the process, and spent the time to read it before they embarked on such a silly endeavor, wasting their own time (at least on the Federal level). Calling attention to Federal procurement inefficiency from a requisitioning process is like complaining about a drippy faucet in a lavatory on the Titanic. Yes, it needs to be fixed (and maybe Coupa is the one to do it). But the real problem is that the ship is taking on water. And no plumber fixing a frigging faucet in a Walnut-lined stateroom is going to have a solution to that.

Jason Busch

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