Talks with vendors increase agencies' independence, official says

By opening discussions, officials can learn what other companies can offer them, instead of sticking with the current vendor

Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, today said contracting officers will not be “co-opted” by companies because of more communication with industry, a contrast to a senator’s comments this week.

“We need to be independent, but more communication can increase our independence,” he said. “In fact, more communication can overcome the tie between the contracting staff and a particular vendor.”

By opening discussions, agency officials can learn what other companies can offer them, Gordon said. However, agency officials feel like they don’t know enough about other companies due to limited interaction with industry. Too often, agencies have one contractor they have dealt with, and they will continue to work with that company, even preferring it over others.

“More communication, especially with competing vendors, may be the best oxygen to remedy that situation,” Gordon said.

In addition, agencies’ talks can even bring more small businesses into the picture, instead of relying on a select number of large corporations, Gordon said.

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However, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) this week said the business relationships that develop between contracting officers and their private-sector partners sway the officers away from objectivity and independence and the officers give in to the companies more often. She was comparing contracting officers with auditors, who, she said, remain objective. They do so because they have no relationships with contractors, she said.

“The contracting officers have an ongoing relationship with the contractors that sometimes impacts their ability to see everything clearly as it relates to some of the behaviors of the contractors,” said McCaskill, chairwoman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Contracting Oversight Subcommittee.

Speaking Feb. 1 during a hearing on contract audits in the government, McCaskill said, “There's just a fine line between cooperation and being co-opted,” and contracting officers, particularly in the Defense Department, have been been co-opted through the years.

Today, Gordon hosted a conference call about his campaign. He issued a memo Feb. 2 to correct misconceptions about talks with industry about procurement. He’s telling the acquisition community that it’s okay to talk.

“Our industry partners are often the best source” to get the latest market information, Gordon wrote in the memo. When buying high-risk and complex IT projects, this type of engagement is especially important.

One myth he pointed out dealt with bid protests. He said acquisition officials think conversations with vendors are not worth the potential for a protest.

Gordon said though that an agency can increase the chances of a bid protest with less communication.

“You will never make a procurement protest-proof, and trying to do so may cause you to make bad business decisions,” said Gordon, a former Government Accountability Office lawyer who oversaw bid protest reviews.

Gordon's memo points out that contracting officers can meet one-on-one with a vendor. The officers do not waste too much time by hosting negotiations after they have received proposals, and debriefing companies after they did not win an award can help the agency in future procurements.

“For much too long, we’ve placed too much emphasis on the ‘don’ts,'” Gordon said. “This memo is an effort to highlight the ‘do’s’ and to tell our people what they can do and not only tell them what they mustn’t do.”

About the Author

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


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