First, do no harm

This year threatens to be a hot one for procurement issues. Actually, my worry is it will be much too hot. Calm would be better.

Beyond headlines about Halliburton and Boeing Co., I'll be watching to see if the procurement system is able to continue to make progress on substantive issues, or if it moves backward. I will especially watch for four things.

First, as procurement issues surrounding Iraq contracting become increasingly politicized, what are the implications for information technology? IT leaders can't live in a fool's paradise and assume we are immune to negative impacts on the procurement system from scandal-mongering and vendor-bashing.

The pessimistic version is that the system will respond to all this by turning its attention backward in time to a 1980s-like obsession with bureaucratic reviews and documentation and heavy-handed treatment of vendors, rather than continuing to move the focus of procurement toward negotiating good deals and getting solid results for the government.

The optimistic version — and this is admittedly a long shot — is that Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) will succeed in using this political attention for the constructive aim of getting the system to pay more serious attention to improving contract management and innovative business arrangements in contracting.

Second, I'll be looking at what happens with bid protests. During the past two years, there has been a steady rise in the number of bid protests at the General Accounting Office. The numbers are still way below what they were a decade ago and the problem

isn't out of hand yet. There has emerged a cultural norm within the IT community that trying to win business from a government customer through lawsuits is an abusive practice and that protests should be avoided except in extreme situations.

Now is the time for the vendor community to pledge to stay on the no-protest wagon. Nothing would reverse improvements in government/industry cooperation faster than a return to the bad old days of routine bid protests.

Third, I'll be looking at what happens with the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Service. FSS has emerged as an IT procurement powerhouse. That's fine. But so far, FSS has failed to take on responsibilities commensurate with its 900-pound gorilla status, preferring instead simply to rake in the dough from its booming business. For example, it is scandalous that FSS has not negotiated automatic vendor discounts for items bought with government credit cards — the idea that the government should be paying the same prices at, say, Home Depot that you or I do is ludicrous.

Finally, I'll be looking to see if we can make some progress, rather than just fend off attacks. The new share-in-savings rule will be out during the first part of this year — how many agencies will step up to the plate in developing share-in-savings projects?

Mostly, though, from an IT procurement perspective, I'll be grateful if we end 2004 no worse off than where we started. n

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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