Kelman: A missed opportunity

In a difficult time for government procurement, the group could have done much more

A lot of people have been asking me what I think of the recommendations of the SARA panel, which the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 authorized. The short answer is that I like most and dislike some.

But the longer answer is that the panel represents a missed opportunity. At a time when government needs leadership and vision in contracting, we got a big dollop of inside-the-box thinking. The contrast with the 1993 Section 800 Panel report, which was a basis for reinventing government procurement reforms, is stark.

Steve KelmanThe SARA panel’s first missed opportunity was a failure to forthrightly discuss the benefits of making contracting more commercial-like. Government efforts to adopt commercial practices are now under attack, even though federal procurement of information technology hardware and other commercial items works better than ever. Government gets quick access to the latest technology at excellent prices. And vendors are more customer-oriented, partly because of the use of past performance in source selection and streamlined procurement vehicles, such as interagency contracts. Such vehicles, which make it easy to get on a contract, also make it easy to fire a bad vendor because hiring a replacement is simple. 

The panel’s second missed opportunity was a failure to focus on the system’s most important shortcomings. It chose instead to hyperventilate on everybody’s favorite whipping boy: interagency contracts. Contracting has three stages. The first is planning, which is researching the market, defining requirements and developing a contracting strategy. The second is source selection. The third is post-award management.

All too often, government does a poor job at the first and third stages. The panel discussed problems with requirements definitions, but it aimed its heavy guns at problems related to competition in selecting sources.

The way agencies handle task orders under interagency contracts does raise questions about competitiveness. But those noncompetitive orders are mostly for requirements that the incumbent contractor can satisfy and that other companies don’t want to pursue. No matter what the Government Accountability Office and inspectors general say, insufficient competition on interagency contracts should be far down the list of federal contracting problems.

By getting the government to focus excessively on source selection, the panel ignored preaward planning and post-award management, which need more attention.

If the panel had focused more on the toughest federal acquisition problems, the panel might have, in the spirit of improving commercial practices, addressed issues ripe for reform, such as refining how the government evaluates past performance and promoting greater use of incentives tied to contract performance.
The third missed opportunity involves the acquisition workforce. The panel was often eloquent on this issue, but it missed a chance to state that we simply don’t have enough contracting employees in government. Given the political unpopularity of hiring more bureaucrats, such an endorsement would have been a true public service.

Kelman is 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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