What McCaskill is missing about past performance data

A punishment-only approach is bad psychology and bad management, even if it may be good politics.

steve kelman

Last week Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) held a hearing to complain about the lack of negative information about contractors in the government’s past performance database, citing specifically that there were no negative reports about BP – the company responsible for the huge Deepwater Horizon oil spill – and that CGI’s most-recent past performance rating before its role in HealthCare.gov was exceptional.  You could learn more about a company by Googling it, she complained, than by consulting the government’s past performance information.

As somebody who basically cut his teeth in government contracting on an effort to allow the government to use past performance in making source selection decisions – until the 1990s, it was not allowed! – I will confess to reacting to McCaskill’s point of view with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I definitely agree with her that the problem is rooted in agencies' reluctance to flag poor performance. "It’s almost like if a contracting evaluator gives negative information, they know they are going to get blowback from the contractor, right?" the senator said. “We let things slide because it’s too hard to fight it.’” This is indeed the biggest single problem with the past performance system as it currently operates.

I also like her reference to getting information on companies by Googling them. I am guessing that it would be legal now for the government to use information from a Google search in making past performance evaluations as long as the government states in the RFP that it intends to do Google searches and might use the information in source selection. I actually think Google searches might sometimes bring useful information into the process.

However, I take issue with the tone of McCaskill’s approach, which on the whole is very punitive.

The purpose of past performance evaluation, in her view, is to track down and weed out bad actors. Yes, that is part of the purpose. But the goal of the system should also be to reward good contractors, and in particular to give an opportunity to recognize work that goes above and beyond minimum contract requirements in seeking to help the government customer. The punishment-only approach is bad psychology and bad management, even if it may be good politics.

We should also note that negative information in past performance reports involves only a specific government contract, so it’s not surprising that BP’s Deepwater Horizon debacle was not there. And it’s also unclear from what McCaskill said whether she was talking only about one CGI past performance report, on the firm’s then-most-recent contract.

I applaud the senator's interest in this important issue, and there is something practical she could do about it. The Federal Acquisition Regulation currently allows contractors who do not like their evaluations to complain one level above in the system. This provision – which I signed off on against my better judgment in 1994 as Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator – should be eliminated, and replaced by a simple opportunity for the contractor to put their version of events into the file. This would go a long way toward reducing the problem that is troubling McCaskill.

Note: This article was updated on March 17 to correct Sen. McCaskill's first name.

NEXT STORY: Federal 100: Alan Chvotkin

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