Kelman: The Mayflower revisited

Anybody remember the Mayflower Compact?

In early 1997, governmentwide acquisition contracts (GWACs), an idea Transportation Department officials conceived, began to take off, and technology services were being added to the General Services Administration's schedule contracts. Multiple-award task order contracts, authorized by the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994, had made it possible for agency officials to choose quality vendors for even a modest job in a fraction of the nine to 18 months it had previously taken them.

All of this was good. But even in early 1997, as I was nearing the end of my tenure as administrator of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, it was clear that a fly was potentially in the ointment.

A system of free market competition among various GWACs and the GSA services schedules is a great idea, but background rules need to be established and enforced to limit what vendors may legitimately do when competing.

When these new vehicles took off, I was concerned that government contractors, in pursuit of advantage over competitors, might allow customers to ignore the simple rules established for streamlined competition for orders and accept business from those seeking sole-source buys.

In my last few months before accepting a job at Harvard University, I repeatedly urged GWAC/GSA managers to establish a Mayflower Compact. The name alluded to the agreement the Pilgrims had set up among themselves to enforce laws in their new, governmentless land.

My idea was that this world of new vehicles was like the new world to which the colonists had come, and managers of these vehicles needed to agree among themselves to enforce constraints that established the context in which they competed against one another. However, with GWACs/GSA flush with revenues, the Mayflower Compact was never broadly adopted.

I bring up this history because it's become eerily relevant to the present. Without effective constraints, the vehicles have been subject to chronic problems. In an increasingly politicized environment, Acquisition Solutions Inc.'s recent report on poor contracting methods at the Federal Technology Service, followed by reports of out-of-scope orders for prisoner interrogators in Iraq using information technology contracts, has led senators to introduce provisions that would, at least for the Defense Department, end agencies' ability to use GWACs altogether.

The lessons of the Mayflower Compact remain as relevant now as then. GWACs and the GSA schedules are, when used properly, enormous boons for program officials using the procurement system. But if those responsible for such vehicles don't urgently take long-overdue steps to enforce common-sense constraints, the ability of those vehicles to help government officials realize their goals could disappear.

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.

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