OMB's effort to dispel bad information takes a new step

Agencies that adopt the OMB policy will foster greater collaboration with industry by linking program officials with private-sector experts to solve problems, writes columnist Dan Chenok.

Dan Chenok is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government and former branch chief for information policy and technology at the Office of Management and Budget.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy within the Office of Management and Budget released the first of two memos titled “Myth-Busting” in February 2011. The memo was designed to debunk misunderstandings about what is and is not permitted in agency/industry communications regarding pending and future contracts. The second memo came out recently, and adds to the attack on bad information.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation has both beneficial and bureaucratic elements across a vast array of regulatory provisions. Many in government and industry think the FAR has strict constraints on what meetings or discussions can occur during pending or future procurements. The first “Myth-Busting” memo was directed primarily to agency contracting staff and stakeholders, informing them of the many ways that communications with industry could occur even in areas where long-standing misperceptions held otherwise.

It increased agency awareness of the permissibility and benefits of advanced communications with industry about agency requirements and seeking input on those requirements to develop better requests for proposals. A number of agencies have taken practical steps to implement the guidance on specific procurements.

However, even if agencies can open the door wider, companies have to walk through the opening to make the benefits of transparency more real and tangible. That is why the recent release of “Myth-Busters 2” — OMB’s sequel guidance — might have a greater long-term impact.

Companies do not always understand what they can and can’t do and are often reluctant to provide too much information to agencies for fear of that information becoming part of the public record. The latest OMB memo corrects common misunderstandings and makes it clear that:

  • Early company input into an RFP is valuable, and that input will not create a conflict of interest if it becomes part of the RFP.
  • Information shared in one-on-one meetings between a company and an agency does not need to be released.
  • Agencies can share information about contractors or pricing with one another to reduce the burden on the procurement workforce and eliminate redundant data.

Agencies that adopt the OMB policy will foster greater collaboration with industry by linking program officials who have acquisition needs with private-sector experts to solve problems. Well-crafted industry days, opportunities for meaningful dialogue with individual companies and greater use of requests for information that help refine requirements are all ways that agencies can optimize the benefits of transparency.

OMB has also indicated that the guidance especially helps small businesses by pointing to information that allows them to develop better proposals and thus execute a project more effectively if they are successful. Gaining knowledge in advance from agencies, such as how much money is available for the activity being contracted, or linking the RFP to the mission needs of the program results in more tailored offerings from businesses. And more debriefings can help both winning and losing small businesses continue to improve so that they deliver greater potential value during the next competition.

Another step that OMB has taken is to match the policy with better information on the government’s main source for procurement opportunities, Federal Business Opportunities. The website has new capabilities, including a section outlining current happenings of interest to small business and ways that companies can link more effectively with agencies and one another as teams.

There are more topics that OMB could address — for example, making cost data more transparent to improve how companies target their bids for agencies. Whether OMB will write another memo and make the series a trilogy is, of course, to be determined.

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