Petrillo: Wrong lessons learned

Procurement changes in the 1990s were radical departures from hard-won lessons of the past


Find a link to Martin Wagner’s June 25 column on’s Download at

Procurement rules are back in play now that we have different parties controlling Congress and the White House. And with the changeover, we hear a chorus of voices rising to defend the so-called procurement reforms of the 1990s.

In the June 25 issue of Federal Computer Week, former General Services Administration executive Martin Wagner added his
voice to that chorus. He pointed to several lessons from the past he said we shouldn’t forget. But his history is faulty.

Wagner’s first lesson is that agencies took too long to award contracts under prereform procurement procedures. That’s only half true. Much of the delay came before a solicitation ever hit the streets. But deciding what to buy is a management issue, not a procurement problem.

Some delays have an important purpose. Before reform, the procurement process was competitive, and that required studying one’s needs and conducting market research. Those steps take time, but knowing what you want and what’s available are essential to sound acquisitions.

The methods fostered by so-called procurement reform, such as task- and delivery-order contracts, have a broad scope and vague boundaries. With those contracts, government buyers can avoid the hard work of deciding what they need and instead leave that to the contractor. But if you walk into a store and ask the clerk, “What should I buy?” you shouldn’t be surprised when she suggests something on the shelf.

A truly competitive procurement takes time. You need to solicit and evaluate proposals from multiple vendors. You can save time by giving a sole-source contract or order to one company, but without competition, why should a vendor cut its price or improve its quality? The sagacity of government buyers is no substitute for market forces. In addition, midsize firms have lost market share in this new environment, further weakening competitive forces.

Wagner also bemoans contract protests. Before reform, government buyers had “to be careful to document every step,” he wrote, so they could defend against a potential protest. As a taxpayer, I don’t see a problem here. What’s wrong with documenting the reasons for important government decisions? And if they don’t look persuasive in print, maybe they weren’t good reasons after all.

To further document the evil nature of protests, Wagner wrote that a minor mistake could cause delays and increase costs. That’s nonsense. No forum sustains a protest based on a minor mistake. The protester must always show prejudice — real and serious harm — to prevail.

I agree with Wagner’s point about the need for more and better procurement people. Ironically, it was the procurement reforms of the 1990s that hollowed out government acquisition offices. Those changes promoted dumbed-down buying methods and enabled fewer staff members to process more buys.

Before reform, procurement rules contained the distilled wisdom of employees with decades of contracting experience. Like any system that develops over time, it needed some pruning. But the so-called reforms of the 1990s were radical departures that swept away many hard-won lessons. Forgetful of the past, we keep repeating it.

Petrillo is a lawyer at Washington law firm Petrillo and Powell. He can be reached at [email protected]


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