The Hidden Overhead Of The Federal Acquisitions Regulations

My 40-year-long career as a scientist in a federal research laboratory has left me with an almost inexhaustible source of topics. Today I discuss some of the absurdities of the Federal Acquisition Regulations.

Put simply, the Federal Acquisition Regulations, affectionately known as the FAR, is a body of rules governing how federal employees procure goods and services to carry out the tasks set out for them by the powers that be. The purpose of the FAR is unassailable: it exists to protect the taxpayer from waste, fraud, and abuse.

Folks who work in the federal government have an obligation to safeguard the public purse and do their jobs as efficiently as possible. Our duty is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. I get that. But with each passing year, this has become more and more difficult because the FAR, intended to protect the taxpayer, became such an impediment to the mission that it significantly damaged the very people footing the bill.

When I first joined the lab in 1981 with a newly minted Ph.D. in chemistry, I was told that any purchase I made for my work, no matter how small, would cost at least $120 to process ($427 in today’s dollars). Even if I needed some bolts from the GSA catalog, paperwork processing overhead was an intrinsic cost I needed to be aware of.

One of the “services” that the processing cost bought for us was that purchasing people would source the lowest cost goods for us. We all remember the story about how astronaut Alan Shephard, sitting atop Freedom 7, could only think how each component in his vehicle had been made by the lowest bidder! Well, my Alan Shephard moment came in 1983.

Image; Drain by zirconicusso; Crumpled money by 8photo.

I had an instrument in my lab with a small radiation source. Nothing particularly dangerous but, every few months, I had to do what is called a “wipe test.” This simply meant that I wet a pad with ethanol, swabbed around the device, and measured radioactivity with a scintillation counter (a fancy Geiger counter). Back then, we did all of this ourselves; nowadays, there is a special person called the radiation safety officer (RSO) who does it.

The device’s manufacturer suggested that the best pad to use was actually (at the risk of being indelicate) a feminine pad. That’s right, a simple Kotex® or similar product. It would take three such pads to wipe around the top, sides, and surrounding area for any dislodged radioactive material. And to make matters easier, such pads were readily available from the GSA catalog. They cost only a few bucks but, of course, there would be that processing overhead each time.

The first time I ordered the pads, it went off without a hitch. The second time, however, was a different story. A few weeks later, there was a box for me in the mail room. Upon opening it, I was surprised and confused to find it contained tampons. I was dumbfounded; I had no idea why.

I quietly took the box back to my desk, careful not to let anybody else see the contents, and I called down to the purchasing agent—you know, the beneficiary of that $120 processing cost.

I asked, “Why did I get these?” He replied that they were cheaper than the pads. I said that I couldn’t use them for a radioactivity wipe test, and his reply was, “You gotta use ‘em; they’re cheaper.” Huhhh?

I told my chief about this, and all he could do was roll on the floor laughing! As did the rest of my colleagues. Welcome to this bedlam known as the federal government! I was told that, in the fed, it was just easier to obsessively control the rule-abiding people (the vast majority) than to catch and fire the few that were blatantly dishonest, and that was the whole purpose of the FAR.

Over the years, things got better; then they got worse, much worse. All I can say at this point is that I am glad to be done with it all.

To streamline small purchasing in the federal government, credit cards were issued in many agencies in the late 1990s and, in my laboratory, most of the permanent staff scientists had one. This allowed us to buy supplies, tools, fasteners, electronic components, you name it, without involving a purchasing agent. All the items that were needed daily to pursue the research mission could be obtained easily. Early on, the reporting requirement was a simple reconciliation of purchases with receipts. Then, of course, this changed.

In later years, it became nearly impossible to fulfill the procedural requirements. Even purchasing a few screws required demonstrating a market search, and we had to do this ourselves. The whole process became, once again, moribund.

Then, in 2009, the small purchase process hit a wall. A joker named Jeff Neely, who was a manager at the General Services Administration, turned up in pictures at a Las Vegas resort hot tub overlooking the strip with two glasses of wine on the shelf at his head. He was there “scouting” locations for his agency off-site meeting. His scouting trip involved much wine and sushi, with him writing to colleagues: “I know. I am bad. But…why not enjoy it while we have it and while we can.”

The fallout over this one guy made it impossible to obtain any lab supplies without the most onerous bureaucratic obstacles. I wholeheartedly agree that Mr. Neely’s behavior was awful, and he resigned and ultimately did a stint at Club Fed. But subsequently, we had to justify with reams of paperwork purchasing even a few chemical vials for the lab. The time and effort were a cost we called “hidden overhead,” and you, my fellow citizens, are paying that cost to this day.

Just one more story to drive the point home. About 20 years ago, I worked on a project geared toward making it safer to use LPG fuel (I won’t bore you with the details). I had to report my results at an industry conference, and the organizers had arranged to cover the cost of my hotel room. Upon arrival, the clerk said that my room was ready and paid but, being a fed, I had to tell her that I couldn’t accept it.

I needed a different room, one that I could pay for. She was incredulous. “You mean that the conference already paid for your room, but you want one that the taxpayer pays for instead?” I sheepishly replied that, yes, that is exactly what I wanted. So, for the duration of that conference, I had two rooms; the one that the conference paid for, sitting empty, and the one that you, the taxpayer, paid for, that I slept in. Whenever I walked past the reception desk, this lady gave me a dirty look!

It is clearly important that appropriate rules be in place for federal agencies to protect the taxpayer but, too often, the rules impede the mission and cost citizens dearly. President Trump tried to unclog this process with some success. But until we understand that the rules themselves can become almost an immoral contempt for the taxpayer, the government will cost too much and deliver too little.

Dr. Bruno, a scientist retired after more than 40 years in research, amuses himself writing books and editing scientific journals, along with wood and metal working.

If you experience technical problems, please write to