With lawmakers on the watch for procurement problems, here are some ways to keep your purchases on track
No change comes without controversy, and rarely are problems completely fixed. So when the federal government launches a campaign to fix things, heated debates and another set of problems frequently emerge.
That's been the case with Get It Right, a campaign the General Services Administration launched to address contracting abuses. But one full buying season later, the jury is still out on whether the net results of Get It Right are good or bad, said Larry Allen, executive vice president of the Coalition for Government Procurement. The acquisition community will express its verdict in dollars.
Tension exists between innovation and control, said David Nadler, a procurement attorney at Dickstein Shapiro Morin and Oshinsky, a Washington, D.C., law firm. Get It Right "is an indication that the pendulum has perhaps swung too far in the direction of discretion and innovation, and we are moving into the procurement equivalent of a correction," he said.
Abuses needed correction, Allen said, but his main concern is that the pendulum may swing too far back. Use of GSA's contracting vehicles is "down or steady for the first time in a long time, which suggests that government customers are going elsewhere," Allen said.
Customers were willing to give GSA a "pass or work with them for one buying cycle," but that willingness will not last for long, Allen said. Although acquisition is never going back to the way it was, "if they don't go out and woo their customers back and reach some sort of happy medium, then I think some of those customers will be very long in returning to the agency," Allen said.
Most of Get It Right's effects are unclear. But Nadler said it will encourage agencies to be more conservative in their acquisition practices. "They're going to be risk-averse in this climate," he said. "It will make it more difficult for both government and industry to do business."
Federal officials should also realize that GSA schedules are not the ideal contracting vehicle for every project, said Jonathan Aronie, a partner in the government contracts group at Sheppard, Mullin, Richter and Hampton and a Federal Computer Week columnist.
"There are some particularly complex procurements that are not suitable for a schedule purchase," Aronie said. "When the government tries to bash those into the schedule structure, it can find itself getting into all sorts of problems and getting the contractor into all sorts of problems, too."
But too much conservatism will drive customers away, so GSA must find a balance, Allen said. "Anecdotally, I have had members tell me that their government customers are telling them, 'What else you've got besides a GSA contract?'"
Other industry officials say changes within GSA destabilize the federal acquisition community.
"We need to bring this reorganization process to a relatively fast close, or at least get it to the point where senior GSA officials who should be calling on customers are doing that and are no longer engaged in introspective navel-gazing," Allen said.
Compete, compete, compete
Industry was not happy when agencies used GSA contracts to skirt competitive-bidding rules. "People were using GSA to do sole-source contracting in situations where it may have been more appropriate to have sought competition," Allen said.
GSA used to assume that agencies requesting a sole-source contract had done their marketplace homework. But that wasn't always the case. GSA schedules are designed to make government purchasing easier, but "it does not do away with all competition rules," Aronie said.
GSA demands competition and promises agencies they'll provide it if necessary.
Set your scope upfront
Nobody would defend the practice of hiring interrogators or funding construction work using an information technology contract. But GSA officials have a new tendency "to be overly narrow in how they define the scope of work," Allen said.
"That brings out ... problems, such as government business not getting done in a timely manner," he said.
Agencies have also been unfairly shifting responsibility for scope-of-contract liability to industry, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council. Scope issues are an inherently governmental function, but GSA officials "do not necessarily subscribe to that point of view," Soloway said. "It's not clear what they think the line should be and how one would define those responsibilities."
Aronie agreed that defining the scope of a contract should be the government's responsibility.
"If something goes wrong, who's going to get in trouble?" he asked. "The contractor. So the contractor has a very practical incentive to take on part of that responsibility."
Avoid use-it-or-lose-it restrictions
Agencies with unspent IT dollars at the end of a fiscal year used to transfer them into the IT Fund at GSA to spend later. Agencies avoided forfeiting the money to the Treasury Department, averted possible budget cuts in Congress and still retained control over those dollars.
Through the Get It Right campaign, GSA has told agencies that "we're still going to allow all the funds to operate for short-term needs, short-term projects, but we're no longer going to allow agencies to leave their money there," Allen said. Agencies will have to plan their procurements better, he said.
But as a matter of public policy, it's not good for agencies to lose unspent dollars at the end of the fiscal year, said Steve Kelman, a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and an FCW columnist. Poor planning is one of many reasons why agencies might have unspent money, he said, but good planning is another.
"The agency might turn out not to need or not to be ready to spend the money," Kelman said.
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