Procurement reform moving into next phase

Because they often cost so much money to attend, one hesitates to use the expression "a dime a dozen" to describe them, but certainly one may say that conferences are a staple of Washington life.

Rarely, however, does one describe them as "breathtaking" or "historic." Yet I recently attended an event I thought was so interesting and important that I scrapped the topic of the column I had planned for this week to write about it.

The Council for Excellence in Government, an increasingly visible organization of former government officials devoted to improving the quality of public management and public trust in government, sponsored a by-invitation summit of senior government procurement officials. It was led by Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Deidre Lee, along with a small number of council principals, such as Bill Clinger, former chairman of the House Government Reform Committee and co-author of the Clinger-Cohen Act, and me. The purpose of the summit was to achieve consensus about a vision for the role of procurement in the era of procurement reform and to discuss steps to make that vision a reality.

For many in the IT community—and for many government contracting folks as well—procurement reform has been pretty much synonymous with the idea of awarding contracts more quickly and with less paperwork. The successes achieved in doing so are laudable.

But as important as those achievements are, one might say they amount to little more than getting procurement out of the way, to eliminate its former role as obstacle.

The vision presented at the summit was to view a procurement professional as the government's business adviser—some at the meeting used the phrase "business leader"—helping an agency achieve its mission using contracting. What is meant by that? Simply put, procurement professionals need to help structure the business arrangement between the government and the vendor in a way that maximizes the chance of a successful win-win partnership that delivers results for the agency. In the new vision, the contracting professional is no longer a clerk but a crucial team member helping achieve the agency's mission.

Once you start thinking like a business adviser, a whole new range of questions—and skills—come to the fore. One senior official noted that all too often contracts are structured in ways that create incentives for contractors to behave in ways counterproductive to achieve the purpose of the contract. The summit was filled with calls for improving incentive arrangements in contracts, including a surprisingly large number of references to new incentive tools such as share-in-savings contracting, which has been something of a hobbyhorse of mine, so I want to make it clear that the references all came from participants other than me. Attendees talked of involving contracting folks earlier in the process—for example, to help work on performance-based statements of work—and of developing innovative ordering vehicles, such as prime-vendor contracts.

These ideas have been germinating for some time. But it was exciting to see these ideas become the consensus view of senior procurement leadership. The part of the meeting devoted to seeing whether there was agreement around the new vision was amazingly short. Participants wanted to move on to talk about how to make the vision a reality.

Significant movements are afoot to change the way procurement professionals are trained, moving from an emphasis on knowledge of regulations toward training in business skills. The Defense Department just had a special course on this topic developed at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration for agency procurement officials.

Participants talked about signing a declaration embracing their commitment to the new vision. People emphasized the importance of showing small victories for the new vision, sharing the successes and moving onwards. Clinger, in a brief statement from the floor during the summit, said, "When we in Congress tried to change the laws to put the procurement system on a more businesslike basis, we were frankly a bit skeptical about how quickly the procurement community would be willing to change and to step up to this new challenge. I am amazed to see how quickly and how enthusiastically you have embraced change."

Based on what Lee was saying in her leading role at the summit, she has decided to make the new vision of procurement professionals as business advisers a signature theme for her tenure as OFPP administrator. In doing so, she deserves the enthusiastic support and cooperation of the IT community.

--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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