Transparency meets skepticism

Industry, government reluctant to reveal much

 The acquisition workforce and government contractors have been enthusiastically talking about transparency, but neither side seems ready to embrace the full openness that it would require. The reluctance could impede the Obama administration's determination to make the procurement process more open, according to some experts.

Many federal acquisition employees are at first ready to spread their work on the table for all to see, but the thought of the criticism that is certain to follow stops them from following through on the impulse, said Mary Davie, assistant commissioner for assisted acquisition services at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service. She was speaking as part of a panel discussion July 21 at the Open Government and Innovations Conference in Washington.

“If you put something out there, somebody can say, ‘Good lord, why did you do it that way?’” Davie said.

Many officials don’t want to face that question. Contracting officers have said they would prefer to do their work far away from the limelight, she said.

In the same vein, companies would like the government to make information available, but they are not as eager to open their own file drawers because they don’t want to reveal their trade secrets.

“No one is going to open their kimono because they don’t trust what people are looking at,” said Michael Del-Colle, senior manager of federal contract policy and compliance at Accenture.

Companies might reveal trade secrets in one-on-one meetings with contracting officers and then worry about whether their secrets remain secret when the contracting officer has similar meetings with competitors, industry executives said.

“We’re willing to step out” to be more collaborative with government, said Esther Burgess, senior vice president and deputy chief operating officer at Vistronix. “But also, we’re looking for consistency in the application of that openness.”

Social-networking technologies can help facilitate transparency, and old and new acquisition employees know how to use the tools, said Deidre Lee, executive vice president of federal affairs and operations at the Professional Services Council.

But employees are scared, added Lee, a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Acquisition employees are in a huddle, and they’ve found that it’s easier not to move than to face the criticism that’s sure to come if they do move and fail. They face scrutiny from inspectors general, Congress, watchdog groups and the Government Accountability Office, she said.

Lee, and the other panelists, offered no simple solutions to the problem. The only thing that can make the difference is strong leadership from the top, Lee said. When there’s a mistake, she said, the Obama administration’s “leadership has got to step up there and say, ‘Yep, we tried it, made a mistake, noted, move on, let’s try again.’”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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