Reform wonk applies know-how to PenRen

From 1994 through early 1998, Dave Drabkin was a senior civil servant in the Office of the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Reform. He was brought in from a legal job at the Defense Logistics Agency by Colleen Preston, acquisition reform's legendary streetfighter during the tough years of bureaucratic battles within the Pentagon over the direction and pace of reform.

Drabkin took on the tenacity of his boss and later was promoted into the Senior Executive Service and was loyal to Preston.

Earlier this year Drabkin left the acquisition reform office to become second in command of a 10-year project to renovate the Pentagon, known to those around the building as "PenRen."

PenRen is no small undertaking. The Pentagon has 25,000 workers and three times the office space of the Empire State building. The renovation budget is more than $1 billion, topping the record $800 million for the recently opened Ronald Reagan building in Washington, D.C.

The Pentagon recently awarded a contract to develop a unified, secure backbone for access to data transmission, telecommunications and cable TV for all Pentagon employees— a job that will cost as much as the rest of the construction combined.

The renovation is being divided into five "wedges," which represent parts of the building that will be fully renovated in sequence. During the work, which is to run for two years on each wedge, Pentagon employees are being temporarily relocated to office space in Rosslyn, Va., and elsewhere. In short, like a major information technology systems project, PenRen is a major proj-ect management challenge.

How is Drabkin using the acquisition reform techniques he championed at his previous job? Above all, he's trying to practice the philosophy he preached while on the policy side— an obsession with meeting cost, schedule and performance goals and looking for ways to get work done "better, faster, cheaper."

The first phase of PenRen, involving some of the basement renovation for the whole building, began several years ago and used standard techniques for construction contracting. Focusing only on low bids, it produced a typical story for much of government construction contracting: many change orders, significant litigation and a 50 percent cost growth compared with the original winning bid.

For Wedge 1, PenRen is experimenting with award-fee and incentive-fee contracts to deal with this problem. For one of its contracts, PenRen also is trying out the two-phase source-

selection method authorized by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 15 rewrite. PenRen has done a down-select to three bidders and is paying each a stipend of $100,000 to work with architects and engineers to come up with an exact design it will bid. The idea is to help DOD know better what it's buying in advance and to avoid change orders and litigation.

Drabkin was surprised when he arrived on the project to see that few of the contracting folks had ever used FAR Part 12, which deals with the purchase of commercial items, to buy products such as elevators and escalators. Contractors were used to placing many government-unique clauses in their contracts and having these clauses flow down to subcontractors.

Procurement folks were not taking advantage of shortened vendor response times or of a combined synopsis and solicitation, which can shave four to six weeks off the procurement cycle for commercial products.

"We hadn't gotten the message out about Part 12 as well as I thought we had," Drabkin said.

The project is using the kind of Integrated Product Team now typical for important DOD efforts. Instead of specializing in one small part of the project, government experts in construction, design and IT are teaming to work on different aspects of the project. "This saves people and time because in the traditional approach, each part of the project would be staffed with its own full-time people," Drabkin said. "It also encourages folks to communicate and thus makes good ideas spread faster."

On a personal level, Drabkin feels good about his transition. "The difference between this job and my last one is in the gratification one gets," he said. "In the acquisition reform office, it took us an incredibly long period to bring things to closure. We were constantly arguing over words.

"Here we have the ability to see something come to closure in a short period of time. You don't argue over a word. You argue over how better to get things done. We're actually moving concrete."

His observations remind me of comments I've heard from government buyers stating that what gives them the most satisfaction is seeing equipment they've bought get out to soldiers in the field.

And the hours? "I'm actually working longer hours than I did before," Drabkin said. "Most days, I'm in at 5:30 in the morning and out at 7 at night. But at the end of the day you feel like you've gotten something done."

For Drabkin, the policy wonk, the trenches seem like a nice place to be.

Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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