Kelman: Perfecting performance

When I came to work for the government about a decade ago, the Air Force was experiencing a big problem with a large information technology hardware contract called Desktop II. The vendor had apparently underbid on the contract, expecting to make money on upgrading hardware. But that wasn't happening, and the vendor was losing money. So company officials decided to stop delivering the equipment Air Force customers were ordering under the contract.

The most amazing thing about this story is that company officials believed they could behave this way and still have any prospect of doing future business with the Air Force.

That was then.

I thought of this as I read a recent article in Federal Computer Week ["Hitting the Ground Running: Vendors Ready for US-VISIT Contract Award from Day One," May 3] about the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology (US-VISIT) contract at the Homeland Security Department.

The article focuses on how three vendors bidding on the contract had already begun spending money — which two of the three will not recuperate — on developing a solution for the first phase of the program even before the contract is awarded.

The reason they did this is that US-VISIT will have tight deadlines, and officials at each company believe that if they are to meet the deadlines, they need to get started now. One said that advance preparation — though not to the extent in US-VISIT — is standard practice in large bids.

This is now. Quite a turnaround in vendor attitude.

The most important change in the government/vendor environment for IT during the past decade has been the increased vendor commitment to performance and customer satisfaction.

Some changes in the past decade include government's use of past performance in source selection, the reduction of procedure-mania, the availability of streamlined vehicles such as General Services Administration schedules that allow agencies to change vendors quickly when one is performing badly and the decline of the bid-protest culture of winning business by litigation rather than customer satisfaction. Vendors have started focusing on what they always should have: delivering good performance.

We see this change mirrored in government. Think about what has occurred with central oversight of IT projects. A decade ago, it involved GSA's delegation of procurement authority process. Now, it involves Office of Management and Budget officials reviewing business cases to make sure the acquisition makes good sense and checking for performance metrics to judge project success.

It's important to remember this history because the focus on performance is being threatened. And this would be a tragedy. The performance culture needs further development and nurturing. Too many big IT projects still fail. We have a long way to go on performance-based contracting. It must not, as it once was, be relegated to an afterthought.

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.

The 2015 Federal 100

Meet 100 women and men who are doing great things in federal IT.

Featured

  • Shutterstock image (by venimo): e-learning concept image, digital content and online webinar icons.

    Can MOOCs make the grade for federal training?

    Massive open online courses can offer specialized IT instruction on a flexible schedule and on the cheap. That may not always mesh with government's preference for structure and certification, however.

  • Shutterstock image (by edel): graduation cap and diploma.

    Cybersecurity: 6 schools with the right stuff

    The federal government craves more cybersecurity professionals. These six schools are helping meet that demand.

  • Rick Holgate

    Holgate to depart ATF

    Former ACT president will take a job with Gartner, follow his spouse to Vienna, Austria.

  • Are VA techies slacking off on Yammer?

    A new IG report cites security and productivity concerns associated with employees' use of the popular online collaboration tool.

  • Shutterstock image: digital fingerprint, cyber crime.

    Exclusive: The OPM breach details you haven't seen

    An official timeline of the Office of Personnel Management breach obtained by FCW pinpoints the hackers’ calibrated extraction of data, and the government's step-by-step response.

  • Stephen Warren

    Deputy CIO Warren exits VA

    The onetime acting CIO at Veterans Affairs will be taking over CIO duties at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

  • Shutterstock image: monitoring factors of healthcare.

    DOD awards massive health records contract

    Leidos, Accenture and Cerner pull off an unexpected win of the multi-billion-dollar Defense Healthcare Management System Modernization contract, beating out the presumptive health-records leader.

  • Sweating the OPM data breach -- Illustration by Dragutin Cvijanovic

    Sweating the stolen data

    Millions of background-check records were compromised, OPM now says. Here's the jaw-dropping range of personal data that was exposed.

  • FCW magazine

    Let's talk about Alliant 2

    The General Services Administration is going to great lengths to gather feedback on its IT services GWAC. Will it make for a better acquisition vehicle?

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above