By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Lectern: Why the new Air Force RFP means trouble

To be honest, I haven't been following the latest twists and turns in the Air Force's tanker procurement. This program has been marred by repeated congressional interference and a bid protest on the previous procurement that, depending on your point of view, either showed the Air Force could do nothing right or (closer to my view) that bid protest lawyers can almost always find some errors in a complex procurement such that a world where big procurements are almost always protested is a recipe for disaster for the procurement system.

I did know that the Air Force had issued a new request for proposal and that the familiar passel of congressional supporters of Boeing and Northrop Grumman had made their familiar comments. However, not until I read a recent supplement on the aerospace industry in the Financial Times that I actually got a feel for the tanker acquisition strategy.

It was not good news.

According to the Financial Times, the RFP includes 373 mandatory requirements, all graded simply pass-fail. There is no "extra credit" for any features beyond the mandatory requirements. Although the article is not clear on this (and thus I may be misinterpreting the RFP), it might be that each mandatory requirement is actually given equal weight in scoring.

This approach reflects every nightmare that many of us have had about the impact of the bid protest environment and the fear industry on how we do procurement. To "protest-proof" the RFP, and protect itself from criticism, the Air Force has removed human judgment from the process, and stated that it is not willing to reward quality at all. All requirements are mandatory (no credit for coming up with something that is valuable but not mandatory). All grades are pass-fail -- sort of like a parody of the civil service system. This is the procurement equivalent of the old paint-by-numbers approach to teaching people to be artists, an approach more suited to the culture of Chairman Mao's China than to a high-tech Air Force.

This is not a recipe for a procurement system that delivers value to agencies or taxpayers. It should be a warning signal to Dan Gordon, Obama’s nominee for OFPP administrator, and the administration's procurement leadership of problems that need to be overcome.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Nov 20, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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