Acquisition officials still wary of talking to industry

Dan Gordon, former head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy

Former OFPP Administrator Dan Gordon. (File photo)

A new IT acquisition bill could ease some of the fears federal procurement officials have about interactions with industry, the fears that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy's "myth-busting' campaign sought to address, according to Dan Gordon, former OFPP administrator and now associate dean of government procurement law studies at George Washington University.

Speaking to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Gordon said federal acquisition employees are still very wary of talking to industry. They fear overstepping boundaries and causing problems inside their agencies, such as bid protests, when they are already "scared of getting in trouble." In February 2011, Gordon, as head of the OFPP, launched an effort to make clear what acquisition officials are allowed to do, referring to it in a memo as "myth-busting."

The committee is putting together the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. Several members of Congress, led by Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), released a draft proposal to the community in September to gather feedback about its provisions. A hearing Feb. 27 delved into the issues of the bill, which brought to light the concerns about agencies’ communication with industry and program management.

While at OFPP, Gordon pushed for more open lines of communication between the two sides of the procurement process: the buyers and the sellers. 

The campaign sought to reassure federal employees that it is OK to talk to companies early in a solicitation. The campaign also clarified other misconceptions among government and industry employees that hinder the procurement process, such as the notion that industry days aren't useful. Some officials believed that limiting their communication with industry would help prevent protests when in fact it can make them more likely while also depriving the government of potentially useful information.

Gordon told the committee that fear of talking to potential contractors has led in recent years to poorly defined requirements, which can handicap a project throughout the length of a contract.

"When I used to ask contracting officers what's causing this, the answer I often got was, 'We were afraid to talk to industry when we were writing the solicitation initially,'" Gordon said.

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Mon, Mar 4, 2013 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

@ Jaime - It would be my observation that Government acquisition staff view many of their industry contacts on an acquisition as the eqivalent of dealing with a used car salesman - all hustle and show. I believe BD and sales representatives need to communicate more respect for the mission and the personnel associated with the mission. I have seen far too many situations where among themselves industry representatives applaud their own competence with a fair measure of disrepect for their Federal client. If industry representatives don't beleive those attritudes don't bleed into their dealing with their clients they are sadly mistaken. What does become obvious to an acquisition professional is that supporting the mission seems secondary to scoring a win, and revenue, and some form ofinternal company credit. If industy wants a more open dialogue then it has to be less hustle and more substance.

Fri, Mar 1, 2013 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

If the government wants to save money, and purchase affordable solutions that actually deliver, then the current closed-door policy that many federal buyers have simply needs to change. In these times of sequestrations and budget cuts, it is only through active communications and collaboration can the government hope to shape requirements that have any chance of positive outcomes. Further, there needs to be a real focus on transparency and affordability, as doing more with less is the reality and understanding what is possible for a given budget should be a central tenet of communications, again early and often in the pre-acquisition phase. Each side needs to be talking to the other more these days, not less. I seems that "MythBusters" can have a positive influence, but it amazes me at the large number of acquisition and program management personnel in the trenches who have never even heard of the initiative. I would ask SPMayor what is meant by "industry needs to reassess its approach to these communications as well." If I had a nickel for every time I have heard, or experienced, emails and phone calls not getting answered I would be wealthy. Granted I do not necessarily disagree, but it is difficult to communicate when often one party refuses to open the door.

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 SPMayor Summit Point, WV

Dan Gordon's efforts to break through the Government's self-imposed barriers of anxiety and caution in communicating with contractors is to be commended. As a career Federal contracting professional and as an observer with 10 years+ industry experience I am dismayed at the current lack of meaningful communication between Government and industry in the procurement process. And this is not just a one-sided situation - indusrty needs to reassess its approach to these communications as well. The cause of the fear referenced by Gordon needs to be rooted-out - whether its legal concerns, career concerns or simply the lack of a trained workforce. Risk can best be managed by competence and confidence. Contractors need to reassess who is representing them to the clients - competence and objective collaboration will draw more clients into diaglogue than slick and quick presentations that only need a lei to seal the deal. Experienced and entrepeneurial Government mangers need to mentor and assist their staffs in developing the communication and goverance competencies needed to open discussions with many potential offerors and then successfully winnow the throng to a select and meaningful competitive pool.

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM

Lack of communications between the Government and industry is an age-old problem. Initiatives such as "Mythbusters" are a great step forward - only if Agency leaders at all levels embrace the concepts and allow their acquisition practitioners to take risks. With the current atmosphere of intense scrutiny by oversight organizations and fear of protest expected to continue for the foreseeable future, early, open and honest communications may be difficult to achieve across the board. On a positive note, however, there are Agencies, and acquisition offices within Agencies, that do try and maintain an active and ongoing dialog with their industry counterparts. I applaud those Federal leaders who allow their acquisition practitioners to engage industry so that an atmosphere of mutual understanding, awareness and respect can be created.

Thu, Feb 28, 2013 OccupyIT

True. Tough to Bust Myths when everyone on the Government side believes in Ghosts.

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