COMMENTARY

2 quick fixes for better programs

Jaime Gracia is president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting, a federal acquisition and program management consulting firm.

As the federal IT community continues to consider its options for reforming the procurement process and reducing waste, fraud and abuse, federal agencies could go a long way toward improving the outcome of their acquisitions with some simple steps.

The first step is to rethink the bidding process. Steve Kelman dealt with this in a recent blog post at FCW.com, in which he noted that the process requires vendors to invest a tremendous amount of time and money in crafting bid proposals. It has become more of a writing contest, in which the focus is on crafting a winning proposal rather than proposing the best solution. In fact, many government contractors have people or even entire organizations dedicated to writing proposals. They are experts at it, but they have no responsibility for doing the work they win.

As Kelman wrote, this process is not sufficient to find the best value in federal procurements. All too often, contractors can't follow through on what their bids propose. Wonderfully written proposals often do not fully address the government’s needs, are fraught with risk or are marketing pitches disguised as solutions. Many procurement officials are left wondering if companies' program managers even read their own proposals. To make matters worse, the government often fails to hold them accountable for the success of a program. That lack of accountability means government keeps getting more of the same.

How do we prevent this from happening? One approach, already getting traction, is to supplement written documents with oral presentations in which the bidders’ subject-matter experts explain their proposal. That would be an excellent way to cut through the smokescreen of the proposal experts and ensure that the written proposal is a good foundation for executing and managing a program. It would also give government contracting officials a better understanding of what they are buying.

However, agencies must ensure that the presenters are the same people who would be directly involved in managing a program. Otherwise, vendors are likely to send people who excel at marketing, not executing. Agencies must also factor the evaluation of oral presentations into the overall source selection rather than treat it as an afterthought.

Another effective tool that should be used more frequently is the post-award conference. The idea is to bring together the critical players from an agency and contractor to discuss their working relationship. That approach sets up both parties for success by ensuring that the contractor understands the government’s requirements and that roles and responsibilities are established for all parties. It also ensures that the government understands the proposed solution, associated risks, quality control, program management and other practical issues in administering the contract.

Contract requirements are often poorly written or, for whatever reason, misinterpreted. Discussing those requirements upfront — before any work is done — could help the two parties identify misunderstandings that could cause serious problems down the road.

When it comes to complex programs, hosting ineffective conferences — or not conducting them at all — is inexcusable. The process of government and industry program managers shaking hands and going off to the races to waste taxpayer money must come to an end.

Certainly, the federal government needs to fix some big problems with the procurement process. But in the meantime, these two approaches could bring about significant improvements in acquisition efforts with only slight changes in business processes and disciplined adherence to contract management principles.

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Reader comments

Fri, Dec 10, 2010 Prog Mgr Hampton, VA

Not sure Mr Garcia's proposals will get the intended results. Adding an oral presentation to a written proposal means the bidder will now need accomplished speakers as well as proficient writers, and still not guarantee the winner can do the job. He did identify the core problem: unclear specifications of what is needed, competing performance standards and unwillingness to punish poor performance. Communication is key: bidders' conferences, post-award guidance conferences and periodic face-to-face evaluations of technical progress based on pre-stated objective measures have always been effective for me. Unfortunately, government salary scales, hiring practices and pay freezes hinder retention of trained personnel, opening the door for slick contractors who talk (and write) a good game but skimp on performance.

Thu, Nov 18, 2010 Jim

Mr. Gracia is spot-on with these two rifle-shot improvement suggestions. They are not grand visions or wholesale new approaches ... they simply tweek an existing process. The key word in oral presentations is to "supplement" the written proposal. Early practices of replacing written proposals with orals went way off the mark, effectively becoming sales pitches. Post award conferences are too often prescribed via a standard RFP "kick-off" clause and occur way before either party is properly prepared. The post-award conference is no time for a "meet & greet." Thanks for these sugs Jaime ... we need more along these lines.

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 Joe Saur

Jaime speaks of "...contractors [who] can't follow through on what their bids propose...". I would submit that the issues are on both sides: government clients who respond positively to specific parts of a proposal during the orals, but then tell the winning team to drop those aspects of their proposal. Case in point: at one point, I was the technical lead on a contract to support one bureau within State. During our oral, we touted our company's Level III cert for the SEI's CMM, and the response of the govt team indicated that this factor helped us to win. Once there however, we were told, "Forget that stuff; we need to get releases out.", and "If it doesn't work when we put it out, we can always fix it later." Apparently, their evaluations were based on the number of releases per year, with no consideration of the quality or effectiveness.

Fri, Nov 5, 2010 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Creating a meaningful source selection process is the point, creating a way to get better understanding of what is actually being bought. No one is blaming contractors per se, as contractors are simply trying to differentiate themselves in a less than ideal process. Nonetheless, poor performance is a two-way street, with poor management processes on one side, and the lack of delivering what is proposed on the other.

Thu, Nov 4, 2010

I have a problem with this article for many reasons, but let's just stick to one. The primary reason for the bad program performance in many cases isn't because of a contractor. It's usually becuase of the politics at play withni the government. Get your reality straight before you start blaming contractors. So, you think an oral presentation isn't a sales pitch! C'mon Man!!

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