COMMENTARY

Agencies should not fear talking to contractors

Effective communication between government and industry can save money and prevent misunderstandings

Back in 1993 when I attended my first Executive Leadership Conference sponsored by the Industry Advisory Council, the theme was the plaintive question “Can We Talk?” In those dreary days, the accepted wisdom was that informal communication between government and contractors before a request for proposals was issued was dangerous, fraught with risks of favoritism and suitable only in highly regulated meetings contractors attended en masse for the opportunity to ask questions, which nobody ever did for fear of revealing information competitors could use.

During the 1990s, the dominant view changed. An important reason to work with contractors in the first place is the fact that they have knowledge the government doesn’t. When government doesn’t take advantage of that knowledge before issuing an RFP, it loses. Failure to get early, honest feedback results in many misunderstandings in contract language, which bedevil contracts after they are signed and lead to disappointments or even litigation. In addition, lack of pre-RFP communication often leads to requirements that are unnecessarily expensive to meet but could have been made more economical with small changes.

A recent article in Contract Management, which is published by the National Contract Management Association for professionals in government and industry who are involved in contracting, noted that some agencies’ legal or ethics officials have “concluded that contracting personnel in their agency or office should err on the side of caution and not be an active participant in NCMA activities.” That attitude reflects a return to the older, dysfunctional view of government/industry communications.

NCMA has proposed guidelines to the Office of Government Ethics and the Defense Department’s Standards of Conduct Office. Those two offices responded with slightly mealy mouthed language that seemed to say they endorsed NCMA’s approach but couldn’t endorse it.

The proposed guidelines state that it is acceptable for agency officials to actively participate in NCMA activities — including making presentations at events and serving on advisory boards — so long as such participation is “in a personal capacity acting exclusively outside the scope of their official position” (whatever that means) and that “they are invited to participate…because of their expertise or years of experience and not because of their current job” (however one would know this). There’s some unfortunate stuff about asking for permission to use government e-mail accounts to publicize local NCMA events, but all in all, it reflects a wise move back from the no-communication brink.

With good leadership from Jeff Zients, chief performance officer at the Office of Management and Budget, who has an industry background, and Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the time is ripe for turning around the mood of the past few years. Indeed, we should take government/industry communications to the next level. In my view, that means giving evaluation credit to bidders who have proposed pre-RFP improvements in agency requirements that will save the government money or reduce misunderstandings about what the government requires.

Let’s use government/industry communication for the benefit of agency missions and taxpayers.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Wed, Mar 3, 2010 Meg Prior

"Our next generation of acquisition workers (and leaders) already embraces communication and collaboration as part of their culture." Agreed! The most smoothly implemented contracts I've participated in are the ones for which I had ample pre-RFP discussions with govt to vet requirements and tighten up the scope. It would be interesting to hear some comments on this article by federal contracting officers reflecting on what changes they feel are appropriate for communicating with industry and if they see any of these changes starting to take shape.

Thu, Feb 18, 2010 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

This is a cultural issue, predicated on false assumptions and incorrect theories. Changing these antiquated views requires leadership and vision, for something that should be seen as benefiting all parties involved. Without question, one of the fundamental breakdowns in federal procurement occur during the requirements development phase, as government buyers create requirements in a vacuum with little to no input from industry, or even internally from their program counterparts. What amazes me is that the FAR encourages exchanges with industry early and often, such that requirements are created in the best interest of the government. Leading the way in collaborative ideas is GSA, with the advent of the BetterBuyProject. This initiative embraces technology to create Acquisition 2.0 tools and methodologies to improve communications, and ultimately requirements and procurements long-term. Only through collaboration with industry can the government hope to improve cost, schedule, and performance goals through embracing innovation and solutions that benefit the taxpayer.

Thu, Feb 18, 2010 Mike Del-Colle

Steve - Your points are well stated.The past is not good for the future. Returning to the days of walls and stalls does not bode well.'Agile' procurment requirements communications between the Government and the contractor community - collectively and individually. The advice being provided by legal and ethics ignores the obvious need to communicate effectively and fully at all stages of the acquisition process.Such discussions, properly managed, can provide the Government with a wealth of information - I know I did it. Communication with contractors are not some form of communicable disease to be feared. As Peter Tuttle points out communication and collaboration are strengths being brought to the workplace by new employees [and they are not always young]. We need to leverage this strength not put it under a bushel basket.

Thu, Feb 18, 2010 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM

Dr. Kelman makes some great points here. Lack of early, honest and open communications concerning government requirements usually leads to trouble later on in the acquisition process. Modern technology makes it easier to communicate, however, overcoming reluctance to communicate is really a cultural issue. Our next generation of acquisition workers (and leaders) already embraces communication and collaboration as part of their culture. This generation is forcing necessary change upon the rest of community. You can see the change today - look at the plethora of social media outlets, GovLoop, etc. It's time to embrace it.

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