Agencies: Don't fear talks with contractors

It's OK to talk to industry, top official says

Government acquisition employees must get over the fear of talking to companies, and instead begin interacting with private-sector contractors, the Obama administration’s top procurement policy official said this morning.

“We’ve got to get past that, people,” Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said during a White House forum on a major IT management overhaul. Yesterday, the White House announced the termination of a struggling Homeland Security Department IT program and the scaling down of several others as part of the same larger effort to overhaul IT management.

Procurement officials are timid about working with companies because they fear it could lead to protests against an agency's contracting process or even a contract’s award, said Gordon and Vivek Kundra, federal CIO. Procurement officials fear that a losing company could allege the winner had an unfair advantage because of a discussion with a contracting officer or program management official about the procurement’s proposal.

Indeed, bid protests are increasing annually, according to the Government Accountability Office, which decides on the protests. Companies filed 2,299 protests in fiscal 2010, a 16 percent increase from the 1,989 filed in 2009. The trend has continued to grow since 2007. From 2007 to 2010, the number of cases has climbed by 62 percent.

Now, Gordon has launched a "myth-busting" campaign to overcome the fear of government-industry discussions. He wants to reassure the acquisition workforce that it’s OK to talk to industry. And they should do so, as part of an effort to be sure the companies can and will deliver just what they agency needs. 

“We’ve got to be integrating from day one,” Gordon said.

He also said he would work with the acquisition workforce's overseers, the inspectors general, ethics officers, the Government Ethics Office and agency attorneys to make sure government employees know their boundaries when talking to industry.

“We have to see what we can do, not only what we can’t do,” Gordon said.

The morning’s forum was an unveiling of the Obama administration’s 25-step plan for overhauling how the federal government manages IT.

In the report that accompanies the sweeping plan, the administration wrote that this lack of integration often leads to poorly written requirements for contracts. Those poor requirements then can lead to faulty IT systems that waste money.

“In many cases, agencies have been hindered by inadequate communication with industry, which is often driven by myths about what level of vendor engagement is permitted,” the report states.

In January, OFPP plans to issue a memo identifying several major myths and the related facts and strategies to get passed those myths. Along with the memo, OFPP is planning to have online video channels by mid-2011 that offer question-and-answer forums regarding these concerns. In addition, the Federal Acquisition Institute, a training center for civilian agencies’ procurement employees, will host a webinar in late January.

To help with integrating with industry, General Services Administration this week released a notice on a concept called ExpertNet, where government can gather input from industry experts on various subjects. There are also other online forums where industry can help build contract requirements.

Beyond the myth-busting campaign, administration officials have proposed creating a specialized group of employees within the acquisition workforce that would take the lead in buying IT.

The group of employees must understand the dynamics of the commercial IT market and also federal regulations in government procurement, so agencies can get a better sense of the best way to buy major IT projects, Kundra said.

“Effective IT acquisition requires a combination of thorough knowledge of the federal acquisition system,” according to the report detailing the reforms. The administration wants specialized training to this cadre of workers, so they can advise their agencies on buying IT.

However, funding is already an issue for the initiative.

Gordon said agencies’ tight budgets makes it very difficult to train these IT acquisition workers.

“Money is a challenge,” Gordon said. Officials will have to depend largely on agency officials to scrounge around to find resources to pay for the training.

About the Author

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


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