GSA IG criticizes managers meddling in contract negotiations

The report could inadvertently impede efforts to keep agencies and contractors talking, some fear.

government industry dialog

A report criticizing managers for interfering in contract negotiations should not be construed as a problem for agency/industry communications in general, advocates say. (Stock image)

A recent GSA Inspector General report recommending stricter communications rules for the agency's procurement personnel might have the unintended consequence of complicating the open exchanges between private contractors and GSA staff that the agency has hoped to foster.

The June 4 IG report recommended the Federal Acquisition Service implement new guidelines and practices to put more limits on contact and communications among its contracting personnel. The recommendation came because the IG had found some FAS managers had improperly stepped into negotiations between contracting employees and federal contractors. The report contained what some observers called "jarring" language about tense interactions among GSA procurement personnel and private contractors.

Some familiar with the federal procurement environment say that while the report is a case-specific instance of the GSA rightly enforcing its rules against undue strong-arming by GSA contracting managers, it could set back broader efforts to encourage communications between federal procurement personnel and contractors.

According to the IG, one FAS supervisor has been placed on administrative leave after intervening in negotiations, pressuring an FAS contracting officer to accept federal IT contracts with less-than-favorable terms. Further, some GSA subordinate employees said they feared for their jobs if they did not go along with managers, the IG found.

The report cited "improper" intervention by FAS managers with three of the agency's most substantial multiple award schedule contracts, including a $358 million contract with Oracle for software, software maintenance and associated services, and contracts with Carahsoft Technology and Deloitte Consulting LLP for IT consulting.

It recommended FAS start keeping detailed documentation of all conversations and correspondence with contractor officials about specific contracts and offers, including dates, times, participants and specific details of information exchanged. It also said FAS should issue a recommendation "expressing support for contracting staff making independent determinations, including decisions to not award contracts or contract extensions."

The report struck a nerve in the procurement community.

Jaime Gracia, president and chief executive of Seville Government Consulting, said the report could impede efforts to improve communications between federal procurement personnel and private contractors. "Now isn't the time to close doors, especially when more open communications can get better value" for the government in budget-conscious times, he said.

"I hope there isn't a government overreaction and a 'now I can't talk' attitude results" from the IG report, he said, adding that the growing scandal at the IRS over conferences has already raised anxiety levels in federal offices in the last few weeks.

Dan Gordon, former head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy

Dan Gordon: GSA IG's recent report shouldn't harm OFPP's Myth-Busting efforts.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy in 2011 kicked off a "Myth-Busting" program, issuing two memos aimed at demystifying federal procurement processes and helping government acquisition employees get over their fear of talking to companies, and vice-versa. Procurement officials have often been leery about talking to companies because they worry it could become grounds for protests. Dan Gordon, administrator of OFPP at the time, said government employees had to get past that fear.

However, Gordon told FCW the new IG ruling is no threat to the continuing work. "The authority and independent judgment of our contracting officers are linchpins of our federal acquisition system," said Gordon, now associate dean of government procurement law studies at George Washington University. "Any time that agency management interferes with that authority and judgment, as the GSA IG reports they did in its recent report, it is a serious problem that needs to be addressed."

The key thing is that the acquisition workforce not be undermined, which the IG found had happened in the cases it looked at, he added.

"Our contracting officers need to be encouraged to communicate with industry, especially in the acquisition planning phase. As long as the communication is appropriate, anything that discourages that communication is to be regretted, including management undermining the contracting officers' authority," he said.

And the effort has begun bearing fruit. At the end of May, the American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) recognized DHS, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the State Department for their work in improving vendor communications in the acquisition process. DHS created an industry liaison council and a small business council to facilitate dialog with industry. NRO established an Acquisition Center of Excellence to promote consistency and best practices in communication, electronic innovation and acquisition support. And the State Department converted some non-competed visa application support agreements into a single performance-based contract.

Gracia agreed the IG report wasn't an issue for the OFPP initiative, but said it could have some effect on the progress of those efforts. But Myth-Busting work continues apace, he added, with a third memo in the works. Gracia said the awards to DHS, NRO and State Department were among growing signs the effort is being internalized in the federal government.

Yet the June 4 IG report's tone could "tamp down" on some the ethical collaboration that is part of the everyday give and take between private sector contractors and GSA contracting personnel, said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive at the Professional Services Council. Contractors unable to effectively communicate their questions about even some of the basics of GSA's contracting rules or specifics on a bid "are already a challenge."

Soloway said the "tone of the report suggests that supervisors don't have role with supervisees." But, he said, if managers couldn't have some say in the process, it would hamper vendors and "change the nature and quality of communications."

Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, said he wasn't privy to the specifics of the contracting officer complaints at the heart of the IG report, but believes give-and-take between GSA's front-line contracting specialists and contractors is an everyday, fluid thing.

The results of those discussions can be uneven, according to Allen, depending on the unique capabilities of each GSA specialist. "Sometimes the specialist is extremely knowledgeable, sometimes not," he said. If the specialist isn't particularly adept in contract details, the contractor may take an issue up the chain of command to the specialist's manager to get a more detailed answer. "There needs to be a place where a contractor can go if they have difficulties."

NEXT STORY: Unraveling the facts about GWACs

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