Analyst teaches old feds new tricks

Tim Shaughnessy a procurement policy analyst with the Internal Revenue Service can attest to the veracity of one of the most common maxims in procurement reform circles: No matter how many laws change improvement in the procurement system depends upon agencies adopting a new "culture."~

~Shaughnessy has spent much of this year teaching his colleagues how new purchasing laws and regulations are changing their jobs. When he began fielding questions from IRS and other Treasury Department buyers a few months ago "for the first time I realized that contracting officers and contracting specialists really had to step back and take a different approach " he said.~

As a former Air Force contracting officer Shaughnessy knows that adopting a new culture can be difficult even when the work force is receptive to reform. For the most part he said his students are eager to try new things. But they also are skeptical of how enduring recent changes will be.~

"Some of their concerns are whether these reform initiatives are going to be supported in the long term " Shaughnessy remarked during a recent interview in the small library of the Treasury Acquisition Institute in Oxon Hill Md. "They want to know if they should really commit themselves to this new way of business and whether all of their support systems will be there."~

To respond to these concerns Shaughnessy asked himself how he might view the new rules if he were still a purchasing official. He concluded that federal procurement personnel had reason to celebrate the changes. "Part of me wanted to tell them there's a lot of good news here " he said. On the other hand his optimism that reform won't be abandoned is tempered by a hint of skepticism. "Another part of me wanted to tell them `I share your concerns ' " he said.~

Shaughnessy came to his current assignment by accident. A member of the IRS' procurement policy shop since 1991 he was among those keeping track last year of regulations proposed to carry out the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994.~

He and his colleagues had such a hard time keeping up with the two dozen-plus regulations that they knew contracting officers would need lots of help as well. After Shaughnessy worked on a course for IRS buyers on the new commercial items purchasing rule that was issued last fall the agency sent him to the Defense Acquisition University to learn more about how to teach the FASA regulations.~

It became Shaughnessy's job to adapt the Defense Department materials for Treasury then travel around the country to train hundreds of the department's contracting officers. Since he began other agencies have asked the Treasury Acquisition Institute which trains buyers from throughout the government to help them learn the FASA rules as well.~

Shaughnessy doesn't seem fazed by the changes. "I've always been in an environment where nothing was settled or constant " he explained. He recalled that as he grew up working in his family's metal-finishing business in Minneapolis "Everyone did everything." There was none of the rigid organizational structure of government bureaucracies.~

After attending college at what is now the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul Minn. on an ROTC scholarship Shaughnessy's first assignment in the Air Force was to be maintaining missiles. But he wanted a job that would allow him to apply his major in business finance. "I lobbied with some folks in ROTC" for a different post he said. He chose contracting because the father of a college classmate ran a Defense procurement office in the area.~

He was dispatched to the Air Force Computer Acquisition Center (now the General Services Administration's Federal Computer Acquisition Center) at Hanscom Air Force Base Mass. in 1983. One of his assignments there was the Desktop I microcomputer procurement. Because the program was one of the first joint service acquisitions in DOD "they allowed us to be creative " Shaughnessy said. While in the Air Force he earned a master's degree in acquisition and contracting from Western New England College in Springfield Mass.~

Shaughnessy spent four years as a program manager with the federal office of Zenith Data Systems. There he became accustomed to last-minute changes in company bids - times when a company vice president might for instance decide the night before a proposal was due that an offer should incorporate a new idea.~

He followed some of his Air Force colleagues to the IRS as the agency was launching many of its Tax Systems Modernization acquisitions and starting to overhaul its procurement operations. Because many of the agency's contracting directives are "no more than four years old " he noted "there's really not a mind-set that every procurement has to be done [a certain] way."~

Nevertheless as a teacher he has learned to appreciate that many employees still need procedures. He has had to answer questions about how the new rules affect many specific - and often mundane - practices. And he has discovered that the IRS needs to provide workers with new guidelines and new ways of interacting with one another.~

He thinks that one promise of procurement reform is that it may dissolve some of the traditional divisions among contracting officials and engender more career mobility. For example some procurement officers have reported that the barrier between those who handle small buys and those that manage large acquisitions "is coming down." Meanwhile some contracting officers see applying reforms successfully as a way to move up the ladder he said.~

On the heels of FASA Shaughnessy and his colleagues also have to train contracting officers - as well as agency lawyers and program managers - about forthcoming changes enacted by the Federal Acquisition Reform Act and the Information Technology Management Reform Act of 1996. He worries that policy-makers won't be able to measure how successful particular reforms are when so much is changing at once.~"One of the frustrations I sense with people is that there are so many reforms that can affect one acquisition that it's hard to single out...what was the cause of our success " he noted. He said he favors pilot programs that "give us a little better benchmark."~

He added that he thinks government managers who might be distracted by forthcoming reform initiatives should not let their attention stray from programs that are starting. "The devil gets in the details and we want to make it work operationally " he said.~

Shaughnessy who hopes to be running a contracting shop somewhere in the government one day says buyers on the front lines can provide valuable advice about how to make the reforms work. "Sometimes I wish we didn't have an organizational chart and you could just go in and listen to folks " Shaughnessy said. "I wish there was a way to communicate with [them] more often."

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