OFPP and the dangers of politicizing procurement

Keep political rhetoric out of procurement policy.

That’s the advice some acquisition experts would like to share with Joe Jordan, President Barack Obama’s nominee to lead the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

They say it is tempting for a new OFPP administrator to inject some campaign-style thinking into his job, but it generally ends up distracting him from the task at hand: creating sound procurement policy.

“His highest priority should be improving the procurement process instead of getting sucked into campaign rhetoric and high-profile — but ultimately empty — gestures,” said Steven Schooner, a professor of government procurement law and co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University.

At a time of heightened concern about government spending, procurement policy could be a legitimate issue in campaign politics. Unfortunately, what sounds good in a stump speech doesn’t always work well as policy, said Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners.

“You need to be able to tell your superiors ‘no’ to some of their ideas that might end up causing disruptions to the procurement program,” he said.

Experts say that for the most part, former OFPP Administrator Dan Gordon managed to keep politics out of procurement. He focused on three primary tenets: ensuring fiscal responsibility, reducing high-risk contracts and strengthening the acquisition workforce. In an interview with Federal Computer Week in December 2011, Gordon reiterated those points, adding that his successor should keep them as the highest priorities.

Gordon left the post at the end of 2011 to become associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University.

Nevertheless, the Obama administrator has had a tendency to view the procurement process as fodder for the campaign trail by focusing on issues such as insourcing and contractors’ political contributions, Schooner said.

He added that Jordan should steer clear of such tactics and instead focus on improving the skills of the acquisition workforce and defining clear regulations that empower employees to make wise decisions on the government’s behalf.

Gordon earned respect from the acquisition community by reinstituting the Frontline Forum, which gives acquisition employees the opportunity to discuss key challenges and concerns in face-to-face meetings with the administrator. Gordon also initiated the Mythbusters campaign to clarify misconceptions among government and industry employees that hinder the procurement process.

“Personally, I think the most successful administrators have reached out to, engaged with, and won the confidence and support of the acquisition community,” Schooner said.

Before joining the Office of Management and Budget in early December as a special assistant to Acting Director Jeffery Zients, Jordan was associate administrator of government contracting and business development at the Small Business Administration.

He also spent a number of years in the private sector. He worked at global consulting firm McKinsey and Co., where he specialized in developing purchasing and supply management strategies for a number of industries, and he managed operations at Backwire, a Web-based publishing and marketing firm.

"His experience gives him a unique perspective on the effects government acquisition policies can have on businesses of all sizes, and we believe that sensitivity will help drive sound polices," said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.

Jordan might also be well-prepared to tackle some key small-business issues, such as how small companies have suffered as a result of the government’s insourcing efforts, said Robert Burton, former deputy OFPP administrator and now a partner at Venable law firm.

In recent months, several members of Congress have introduced legislation that seeks to reform small-business procurement, including bills that would increase the government’s 23 percent goal for small-business contracting and add consequences for missing the mark.

However, Allen cautioned against narrowing the OFPP administrator’s broad responsibilities. In other words, “don’t try to be the head of the SBA or some other government organization from this position,” Allen said.

Jordan will have his hands full. Allan Burman, who served as OFPP administrator in the early 1990s, said the administrator needs to communicate with disparate groups in the procurement community, including federal employees, contractors and members of Congress, who play a major role in acquisition.

“It helped me get in good standing by doing that,” said Burman, who is now president of Jefferson Solutions, the government consulting practice of Jefferson Consulting Group.

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 14, 2012 Vern Edwards

The position of OFPP Administrator is a political appointment, and the Administrator serves at the president's pleasure. Everyone in the Office of Management and Budget is expected to understand and pursue the president's policy agenda, which is a political agenda. There is nothing wrong with that. Steve Kelman pursued President Clinton's policy agenda, which was a political agenda, and he was good at it, and that president had good policy goals. Hopefully, a president will pursue an agenda that is in the best interest of the country. Pursuing a president's agenda may well include pursuing objectives voiced in campaign speeches. So what? I don't think an Administrator should campaign, but that doesn't mean he or she must reject politically motivated policy objectives. Of course, an Administrator should tell his or her boss when a policy objective is a bad idea and should resign if he or she can't support a president's agenda. I think that some of the people who gave Mr. Weigeit their opinions didn't speak thoughtfully. But that's always a risk when you give an opinion over the telephone.

Tue, Feb 14, 2012

You're kidding, right? The acquisition process IS political. It's not just about how money is spent, it's about who and where gets government dollars. If it weren't political we would have fixed weapons acquisition decades ago. But don't worry, OFPP Administrator has never been an especially powerful position. The head of DOD's DPAP has more effective power than the OFPP Administrator. The position is a resume padder. Good luck finding a list of the OFPP administrators. How many working level acquisition people can name the last five administrators? Assuming President Obama gets re-elected, the new guy might be around for two years. Just long enough to brag about some memo he issued, like "mythbusters."

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 SBA PCR

Joe Jordan is an individual of manifest integrity. When he came on-board at the SBA, he was a breath of fresh air. His only concern was with what made sense from the small business perspective. Neither politics nor fear of "upsetting the apple cart" deterred him from deciding on a course of action that was based on what was in the best interest of small business federal contractors. Also, he did something which was relatively unheard of from individuals who precceded him-- he followed-thru and delivered an impressive array of changes and reforms which have transformed tha ability of small firms to gain an even greater share of prime and subcontracting opportunities. If we had more individuals with Joe's talents, initiative, drive and integrity, Government would be much better off. Joe Jordan will make an outstanding Director of OFPP and his nomination should be approved swiftly.

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 Erich Darr

You mean he shouldn't politicize procurement like the administration has politicized special ops?

Mon, Feb 13, 2012 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

Mr. Jordan would be well advised to consider and follow the advice given by Dan Gordon and Steven Schooner. Politicizing the acquisition process, particularly during the coming election period, will do nothing to improve the business practices of the Federal Government. In my view, anyone who takes us down that path should be asked to take a long walk on a short plank - splash. Congress, the Hill and senior leadership, both career and political, need to give the acquisition time to stabilize and strengthen itself given the many changes over the past couple of years. Before any meaningful business practice can establish roots and a history, we are off changing new ideas and trying to live up to new expectations.The Administrator-designee needs to apply a steady hand to the initiatives just coming to maturity or just recently started. While he may be buffeted by political winds in the coming months he must stay focused on the priorities of his predecessor. If he doesn't, then we can expect the procurement process to become a political pinball bouncing from one idea, expectation or brain burp to another.

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