Politics threatens procurement reforms, Kelman says

Political arguments among players who are not usually involved in the federal procurement arena could undo the improvements of the past decade, a former federal procurement official said today.

Acquisition officials are aware of the Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative because they are the ones usually expected to implement it within agencies. But the push to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of federal programs by competing government employee-performed functions in the private sector "has created, and continues to create, a political firestorm for obvious and understandable reasons," said Steve Kelman, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

He was speaking at Federal Sources Inc.'s Federal Outlook: Strategy to Tactics conference in McLean, Va.

"We have, for the first time in a long time, developed a powerful public interest group [in the federal employee unions] that has a vested interest in the procurement process' failure," said Kelman, now professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

People who don't normally pay attention to federal procurement are raising competition questions around contracts awarded in Iraq, particularly the bridge contract with Halliburton, Vice President Dick Cheney's former company. But career officials at the Defense Department have said the decision came from their discussions, not any political pressure, Kelman said.

Those external pressures are coming at a time when the administration has been practically missing in action on procurement policy, he said. "The nicest thing you can say is that we've had weak leadership from OFPP and the White House."

The Services Acquisition Reform Act (SARA) sponsored by Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, is close to becoming law as part of the fiscal 2004 National Defense Authorization Act. It builds on the reforms begun in the early 1990s with the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act and the Clinger-Cohen Act. And Bush has nominated David Safavian, the chief of staff at the General Services Administration, to be the new OFPP administrator.

But officials are already saying that Safavian will spend the majority of his time on shepherding the competitive sourcing initiative through a resistant Congress and little time on maintaining the procurement system, Kelman said. That could leave openings for parties that want to roll back procurement reforms, such as performance-based contracting and the quick buys available through the GSA Federal Supply Service IT Schedule.

"I'm concerned we're going to go back to a situation...where it didn't matter if a contract failed as long as the contractor didn't make too much money," Kelman said.

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