Acquisition reforms rush forward while top OFPP seat remains empty

Obama is reforming contracting with no administrator, and he doesn't seem to mind

Just four weeks after being sworn in as president, Barack Obama signed into law the massive stimulus legislation, complete with $787 billion to spend and significant changes to the government’s contracting regulations.

OFPP past leaders

Obama's choice for the next OFPP leader will follow in the footsteps of past administrators.

  • Hugh Witt 1974-1977
  • Lester Fettig 1977-1979
  • Karen Hastie Williams 1980-1981
  • Donald Sowle 1981-1984
  • Robert Bedell 1986-1988
  • Allan Burman 1990-1993
  • Steven Kelman 1993-1997
  • Deidre Lee 1998-2000
  • Angela Styles 2001-2003
  • David Safavian 2004-2005
  • Paul Denett 2006-2008

Two weeks later, Obama declared contracting reform to be a top priority for his administration and issued a memo on some of the changes he had in mind. Since then, he has frequently stated what he sees as a dire need for reforms and oversight of contractors.

Obama signed another bill in May that changed the rules for the Defense Department's procurement of major weapons systems.

Through all of this, he seems to be missing a key player: the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Obama has chosen a national chief information officer — Vivek Kundra — and picked Aneesh Chopra to be chief technology officer. They quickly became prominent figures, and Kundra has pushed technology as an important part of acquisition reform.

But the president has no procurement policy chief.

The Office of Management and Budget has issued guidance on how agencies are supposed to spend the stimulus money, approved numerous new regulations and nearly completed a definition of inherently governmental functions.

But no chief.

In theory, the OFPP administrator is a key player in anything to do with government acquisition and is downright essential during times of major reform. Nevertheless, the changes are apparently moving along without an administrator. Some experts have started to wonder if the role is as important as others had assumed.

However, the push to find a nominee is building now that OMB’s deputy director for management, Jeff Zients, has been confirmed, said Kundra, who is involved in the search for an OFPP leader.

Even so, the administrator’s desk remains empty, while outside, the acquisition and contracting world is spinning faster than ever.

“There’s something to be said for somebody who knows how to grab on to things that are already in motion,” said Allan Burman, president of Jefferson Solutions, a division of Jefferson Consulting Group.

As the world turns

The government is witnessing some of the biggest changes in contracting in more than a decade. Obama took an about-face from President George W. Bush in a memo issued March 4 that comments on the troubled area of contracting and indicates how important he considers reforming the system.

Experts say the OFPP leader will be in a powerful position. He or she will have the president’s ear and a big agenda to tackle — bigger than in many past administrations.

“This is going to be a highly visible job with senior-level interest in what’s going on,” said Burman, who was acting administrator of OFPP starting in 1988 and confirmed in that role in 1990.

Obama wants tighter oversight of noncompetitive contracts and those without fixed prices. He wants an acquisition workforce that is capable of overseeing contractors. He has also told agencies to use outsourcing only when it’s absolutely necessary so the government can wean itself off its dependence on the private sector.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which Obama signed into law in February, is disbursing billions of dollars to save the economy, and the law dictates how agencies can spend that money and what contractors must report on when they get the cash. Experts say those rules have set a new standard for acquisition transparency and reporting and thus will spread to all government contracting in the near future. They say a leader needs to guide those changes appropriately.

A few blocks from the empty OFPP administrator’s office, Congress is passing reform legislation. Members are changing small-business set-aside rules and thinking about ways to revamp DOD’s acquisition system so the department can buy information technology faster. Many acquisition experts believe Congress makes rules without really understanding the issues. And that’s another reason it’s important to have an OFPP administrator.

All this activity is happening while the government remains on a fast track to spend $600 billion a year.

Then there’s the acquisition workforce. It’s overworked and demoralized. Employees are waiting for a strong leader to offer them some relief. For several years, they have felt battered by intense scrutiny by Congress, inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office. They want a leader high in the Obama administration’s ranks to protect them.

Catching up

When finally confirmed by the Senate, the administrator will need to sprint to catch up with what’s been happening in the acquisition field, said Angela Styles, OFPP administrator from 2001 to 2003 and now a partner at Crowell and Moring’s Government Contracts Group.

The White House has been working for months to draw up memos and craft a strategy. Most important for OFPP, Obama has brought the traditionally back-office duties of negotiating and signing contracts to the forefront of his agenda.

“We’ll have to break bad habits that have built up over many years,” he said. “But we can’t keep spending good money after bad.”

The first test of the new OFPP administrator’s authority will be how far he or she can stray from the goals Obama outlined in his March 4 memo, according to one expert.

Steve Kelman, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997 and now a Harvard University professor and Federal Computer Week columnist, said the memo reads more like something written by lawmakers than a document crafted by experts in contracting.

He said the OFPP administrator must wrestle with nitty-gritty acquisition issues, such as how to navigate performance-based contracting and improve the use of contractors’ past-performance information in making awards. The administrator also has to continue melding contracting officers, their technical representatives and program managers into a team as they manage millions of contracts.

Kundra, who is pushing for a speedier, simpler acquisition process, said the OFPP administrator must understand the challenges of government procurement while also believing that the government needs to find faster ways to buy ever-evolving IT.

The administrator should “recognize we can’t treat technology procurements in the same way we do buying buildings,” Kundra said.

Furthermore, a report from industry and government experts urges the administrator to compel agencies to approach acquisitions holistically when they write contract requirements. The administrator will need to improve communication between agencies and industry, the report said, and he or she will need to convince employees that technological innovations can improve the acquisition process.

Unfortunately, the delay in naming an OFPP administrator means “people are always going to know you weren’t the one who wrote the agenda,” Styles said. Therefore, the administrator will need to find a way to embrace and personalize the administration's priorities.

Styles said she received her priority — competitive sourcing — from Bush administration officials, but she was involved in drafting the procurement policy from the start because she was nominated in March 2001 and confirmed three months later. Her role was to implement the ideas of her bosses. The same will be true for the next administrator, she added.

When a key position remains vacant while other officials lack deep knowledge of an issue, it can result in a misguided — if not directionless — agenda, said Bob Woods, commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Technology Service from 1994 to 1997 and now president of Topside Consulting. That’s the sort of situation the new OFPP administrator will face.

"You don't want to be the last wolf to the feast," he said. "There’s been a lot of chewing going on since you've not been there."

Missing person

The longer the position remains unfilled, the more some experts question its importance. Congress and the administration seem to be setting policies just fine without an OFPP administrator, they say.

“Here we are in August, and we don’t have a nominee yet,” said Robert Burton, former OFPP deputy administrator and now a partner at Venable law firm. “It’s obviously not a priority yet.”

Burton pointed out that Lesley Field is doing a fine job as acting OFPP administrator, and he questioned the urgency of choosing a permanent administrator. “It’s not like the initiatives don’t go forward,” Burton said. “It’s not like the career people don’t talk with other offices.”

OFPP would work just as well with a career employee in charge, who would likely stay longer than the typical two-year tenure of most OFPP administrators, Burton said. Plus, he or she would have the added benefit of understanding the issues involved after having risen through the office’s ranks.

“Acquisition is nothing but a lot of rules and regulations,” and it demands a strong legal background, not a political connection, Burton said. Deputy administrators work on many aspects of reforms, and they’re often dealing with agency leaders on regulations. Burton also ran OFPP during many of his years there as administrators came and went.

Kelman said there are benefits to appointing a retired career acquisition official to be OFPP administrator because that person wouldn't need a crash-course in what’s happening and why.

In the meantime, highly visible officials are talking about innovative acquisition reforms. For example, Kundra is calling for saving money through an IT storefront, cloud computing and software-as-a-service initiatives. He wants to use technology to speed the slow and deliberate acquisition process. And the tech-savvy Obama administration is putting a lot of weight behind Kundra.

“The administration is making that post very visible,” Burton said. Kundra’s prominence might suggest the decline of the OFPP administrator’s role as a leader in acquisition reform, Burton added.

However, Deidre Lee, OFPP administrator from 1998 to 2000 and now executive vice president of federal affairs and operations at the Professional Services Council, said Kundra could be a strong ally of the OFPP administrator.

“Two or three people at that high of a position with like minds can do a lot,” she said.

Although neither of them has much statutory authority or budget control, “one of the most important things anyone can have is a bully pulpit,” Kelman said. The two leaders could inspire people and soothe an anxious acquisition workforce, he added.

Only a few people are capable of doing that. Lee said that when acquisition employees make a mistake, the administration’s “leadership has got to step up there and say, 'Yep, we tried it, made a mistake, noted [it] and moved on. Let’s try again.'”

Everything is in place to move the workforce forward with the innovations that technology allows, experts say, but people are waiting for leaders to show them the way.

“I think the lion’s share is ready, but it’s going to take a lot of courage,” said John Nyce, associate director of the Acquisition Services Directorate at the Interior Department’s National Business Center. He added that they’re looking for someone to stand up for them.

Lee said the workforce is in huddle mode. Employees have learned that they can avoid attention by not moving forward. “That’s why leadership is so critical,” she said.

And employees understand that a political appointee has more access to key decision-makers. “The better the relationships, the better job you do,” Styles said, mentioning Kelman and David Safavian, who was OFPP administrator from 2004 to 2005 until he resigned during a scandal.

Some experts believe the administrator should remain a political appointee, even if a career person is just as capable. That approach ensures respect from other appointees throughout the government and shows that the administrator shares the president’s goals and agenda.

Furthermore, the president’s support for the administrator will make employees listen to what he or she has to say and pay attention to the direction they’re headed.

“A lot of the workforce longs for good leadership,” Kelman said. “And it’s up to that person to show he’s willing to go out of his way to work for them.”

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Reader comments

Sun, Aug 2, 2009 Observer

The office, regardless of occupant, has steadily declined in influence. It is sad so much hope and expectation for miracles has been heaped, in advance, on the next incumbent. You'd think the position was known consistently for heavy lifting. Can we attribute any responsibility for the growing anxieties about contracting to the like-thinking, inbred public/private partnership of folks, backed by Congress and various administrations and industry, who have collectively presided over glacial change? An empty OFPP chair isn't a key impediment to progress. Rather, there is a bunch of issues, such as the extent of needed competition, small-business preferences, government oversight and rule/law enforcement, and shared risk, that need to be resolved. Incentives are great, too, but the White House has this silly idea that overseers and agencies, hard-working civil servants, and for-profit and nonprofit contractors need to do their basic jobs before more marshmallows are handed out.

Fri, Jul 31, 2009 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM

The choice of the next OFPP Administrator will be very telling in regards to how the federal acquisition workforce sees their career paths heading. Hopefully, the choice for OFPP Administrator will be a strong business-savvy leader who can successfully juggle the need for reform and streamlining against the need to protect the taxpayer's best interest and protect the overall integrity of the acquisition process. This balance will play a vital role in the government's ability to attract, train, maintain and retain acquisition professionals over the coming years. An overly transactional (read clerical) focus may dissuade the skilled and agile professionals the government needs from coming on board. The acquisition workforce will be quick to read the tea leaves after the appointment of an OFPP Administrator is finally made.

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