By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Hands off JEDI, Mr. President

cloud security (vectorplus/Shutterstock.com)

Back in 2015 I wrote a blog post praising’s the General Services Administration's 2013 decision to award a contract to Donald Trump to develop and manage the Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue. I praised both the decision to contract out the redevelopment and management of the building and, above all, to award the contract to Trump, who even at the time had developed a high political profile questioning whether then-President Barack Obama had been born in the United States. There were not that many countries, I noted, where an outspoken critic of the government in power could be awarded such a high-profile contract -- or any government contract at all for that matter. This was a statement, I wrote, about the quality of our procurement system and the integrity in government management.

After the blog came out, I received the one and only communication in my life from Trump, written by hand on a copy of the blog post and saying “thank you for the kind words.” (In the upper left hand corner of the blog post, somebody had written: “Dad,” in handwriting very different from Trump’s. Presumably one of the children had somehow seen the blog and forwarded it to him.)

Fast forward to 2019, and the Department of Defense's Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure cloud contract. President Trump is now saying he’s “getting tremendous complaints about the contract with the Pentagon and with Amazon.” (Note that the JEDI contract has not been awarded yet, but DOD has said only Amazon and Microsoft can meet all the requirements.) “They’re saying it wasn’t competitively bid,” Trump said, adding that he is ”seriously considering” intervening in the contract award.

You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to understand why Trump is upset, and it’s not because of his regard for fair competition. Trump doesn’t like the Washington Post, he doesn’t like Jeff Bezos, and he doesn’t like Amazon.

Amazon, which has the leading market share in cloud computing in the country, is the front-runner for the contract. Amazon’s competitors, having challenged the procurement numerous times before it’s even been awarded -- mostly recently the competitors’ appeals were rejected by the U.S. Court of Federal Claims -- went to Trump to try to get help on what they couldn’t get from the courts or DOD. They want political interference in an important contracting decision.

This brings us back to the Old Post Office and the Obama administration contract that Trump won. It is a bedrock principal of procurement policy in the U.S. -- and beyond that fundamental to good governance in a society -- that contract award decisions should be made by civil servants, not politicians.

This policy is mostly though not universally followed in local government; at the federal level the idea of political intervention in awarding contracts is a taboo that is almost never breached­­­­­. In the federal government, the regulations specifically say that contract award decisions may be based only on criteria presented in the original solicitation of bids, and many protections are built into the awards process to prevent political interference. Involvement of the president in contract award decisions is highly irregular.

In some sense, the behavior of the contractors who apparently went to the president to complain was even worse than the president’s own behavior. (Trump suggested the complaints came from Oracle, IBM and Microsoft; Oracle has been by far the most aggressive in challenging DOD's JEDI decisions to date.) The president can claim ignorance of how government contracting works, and he has shown in other contexts a lack of appreciation for institutional norms. But these vendors are large, experienced federal contracting players. They should have known better. Shame on them.

If Obama had had the approach towards interfering in contracting decisions that Trump apparently has, the Trump International Hotel would never have been built.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jul 22, 2019 at 12:00 PM


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