By Steve Kelman

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The stimulus package, the contracting workforce and reinventing government procurement reforms

I met on Tuesday with a group of young contract specialists at the Transportation Security Administration, and one of the issues that got raised is provisions in the economic stimulus package that would provide cash to federal agencies to purchase equipment (often IT). TSA, for example, is scheduled to recieve money to buy new generations of various kinds of screening equipment. And the equipment is supposed to be bought competitively.

The person who raised this issue was concerned over how the overstretched contracting workforce can handle yet another set of spending requirements on top of what it already has. The stimulus package does provide money for administration of the stimulus (as well as a big plus-up for Inspectors-General), but given the speed with which equipment is supposed to be bought, there's not enough time to hire and train new contrating officials.

I haven't seen any public discussion of this issue, so I think it's important to raise it.

I have two thoughts.

One is that the government will want to use pre-competed vehicles as much as possible. For IT, vehicles such as the National Institute of Health's governmentwide acquisition contract ECS or the Department of Homeland Security's First Source, have a built-in reverse auction capability that allows automatic second-stage competitions with no additional work on the government's part, and create a paper trail showing that competition requirements have been satisfied. Reverse auctions on non pre-competed vehicles can do the same thing. (Full disclosure: I am on the Board of Advisors of Fedbid, the reverse auction provider that powers the ECS and First Source auctions.)

The second is that, for more complex buys, the government may need to repeat something that was tried during Katrina, when agencies lent contracting staff for a short period of time to FEMA to help with emergency work. Not all agencies are getting stimulus money to spend on equipment. Those that aren't perhaps should be lending folks, on a reimbursable basis, to those who are. This shoudl be organized by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in OMB.

We should also do a thought experiment to imagine how these demands of the stimulus package could possibly be met without the procurement reforms of the 1990's. My colleague from that time Colleen Preston often noted that when she came on board at DoD, as a political appointee (and therefore someone getting priority service), it took four months to buy her a $50 dictaphone. Multiple award contracts, electronic catalogues, reverse auctions, and simplified acquisitions are all hard-won gains that came under ill-advised criticism over the last few years. We can only be grateful that the fear industry and other critics did not get their way and completely destroy these instruments, so that they are now available and ready for use. We would not have time now to recreate them fast enough for the demands of jump-starting the economy.

As noted, I haven't seen this issue discussed elsewhere. Do any readers of this blogs have any thoughts about how the contracting and program workforces should be managing equipment purchases (or other purchases) under the stimulus package?

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 12, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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