VA's Frye stirs debate with reverse auction explanation

The VA official who halted reverse auctions becomes the focal point of the debate.

The reverse auction method for buying commodities and services has many champions but also some detractors. One of those detractors — maybe “skeptic” is the better word — is Jan Frye, deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics at the Veterans Affairs Department.

Frye recently decided to take a closer look at the process. He called a temporary halt to the practice in March, lifted that order in April — with some added procedures for contracting officers to follow — and then created the real stir when he explained his reasoning.

His main concern was that contracting officers might be putting too much reliance on FedBid, the company that runs the auctions.

“When you hire a firm to tell you what you’ve got to do, aren’t we, the government, supposed to know what we’re supposed to do?” he said in a keynote address at the Coalition for Government Procurement’s 2012 Spring Conference in April. “We need to have contracting officers who have heads screwed on right, who understand what their responsibilities are and not dump it in the lap of a third party.”

That got Federal Computer Week’s readers talking, with Frye becoming the focal point of the debate.

"I have known Frye for a number of years and worked with him in the Army,” wrote one anonymous reader. “Like him or not, he's smart and knows his business cold. He knows how contracting should be done, and he doesn't waste energy delving into things that don't warrant his attention.”

Another reader had a different take. The reader, who also wrote anonymously and claimed to have experience working at the Veterans Health Administration, said Frye should speak more temperately.

“I can't believe [Frye] can make public comments about what should be an in-house departmental conversation," the reader wrote. "When I worked for VHA (and I did a fair amount of public speaking), my presentations were all pre-approved, and I can assure you the type of comments Jan Frye has been making would never have been approved or tolerated.”

When he lifted the ban, Frye told contracting officers to document the costs and estimated savings. He also noted that reverse auctions are suitable only for procurements where the lowest price technically acceptable criterion is the only one that matters. “Selection criteria beyond LPTA would indicate that the requirements are too complicated to ensure that cost savings and acceptable quality would be obtained through the reverse auction method,” he wrote in the memo detailing the new rules.

“We are telling them to show the math on the dollars the VA saved,” Frye said. The documentation “will add some credibility to the dollars that were being bragged about in savings.”

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