Short tenures at OFPP hurt acquisition initiatives, experts say

Dan Gordon, soon to leave the agency, set the bar high for the next appointee

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy is losing another administrator relatively soon after his confirmation, which may be an impediment to advancing policies, according to one former OFPP official.

Since the late 1990s, administrators have stayed at OFPP for roughly two years. Steve Kelman was the last administrator to stay at OFPP for longer than that, from 1993 to 1997. Kelman is now a Harvard University professor and columnist for Federal Computer Week.

Dan Gordon, the current administrator, will leave at the end of the year for the George Washington University law school, where he will be associate dean of government procurement law studies.

When he leaves his office for the final time, he will have been administrator for about 25 months. Gordon was confirmed in November 2009.

A result of such short terms as administrator is that the office staff is pulled away from their inherently governmental functions of working on governmentwide procurement policies that affect agencies and industry.

“Unfortunately, the news of Dan leaving is that it disrupts the office and the focus on current initiatives,” said Robert Burton, former deputy OFPP administrator, who spent several years in the 2000s as acting administrator. He now is a partner at the Venable law firm.

Confirmation process

As Gordon leaves, the Barack Obama administration will once again have to find a suitable nominee. Once the next nominee is chosen, the White House staff will have to prepare the nominee for the Senate confirmation hearings, along with a crash course in the ongoing initiatives.

“It’s a lot of work,” Burton said.

While that's disruptive enough, Burton said it's also difficult for the office when leaders come and go so frequently. Consistent leadership is good to have, but hard to attain under those circumstances. And it's detrimental to the office-holder himself, Burton added, because accomplishing anything of note in just a couple of years in office is unlikely.

Gordon, however, was one who did manage to make some progress on initiatives during a brief tenure, Burton said. 

Gordon's initiatives

One of his most significant initiatives was that Gordon worked to rebuild the federal acquisition workforce. He gathered support to provide funding for more employee training, and he updated the certification standards for contracting officers. Gordon's reforms also increased training standards for contracting officer's representatives and program managers, both of which are considered part of the acquisition workforce.

Gordon also pushed agencies to think strategically when buying commodities. He encouraged strategic sourcing and getting agencies to take advantage of the government’s size.

“We are—finally—leveraging the federal government’s purchasing power as the world’s largest customer to deliver a better value for the American taxpayers,” Jacob Lew, director of the Office of Management and Budget, wrote on the OMBlog Nov. 2.

Gordon also brought attention to innovative methods to purchasing, such as electronic reverse auctions and interagency contracting.

The listening ear, the reasoned mind

In addition, Gordon was someone that government officials and industry leaders felt like they could talk to.

“Perhaps his most important contribution was his tireless efforts to bring open, reasoned debate and discussion back to federal acquisition,” said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.

Gordon sought to mitigate the hyperbole and rhetoric of the procurement world with a Myth-Busters Campaign, Soloway said.

Steve Schooner, a procurement law professor at the George Washington University law school, said Gordon deserves a lot of credit for reviving the Front Line Forum, which was instituted by Kelman and had largely fallen away in recent years. The forum let the procurement policy leaders hear from the workers dealing daily with government purchasing.

“It's hard to quantify how important this outreach is—not just engaging with the operational community, but actually listening to the concerns and suggestions and aspirations of the people upon whom the entire process depends,” Schooner said.

He said he’s hopeful that future OFPP administrators will recognize the importance of being “the acquisition workforce’s cheerleader-in-chief.”

Schooner said a major difference between Gordon and Kelman is the workforce. Kelman faced trend in the 1990s to decrease the size of the acquisition workforce, which he could not stop. Gordon inherited a far more starved acquisition workforce. One of his high-profile initiatives was rebuilding the workforce, and he had kept it on everyone’s radar screen.

It will be “one that will pay dividends to the government and the taxpayers for years to come,” Schooner said.

Kelman too said the government will benefit from the emphasis on the workforce.

“Dan did a good job fighting for increasing the numbers in the depleted contracting workforce,” he said.

What the next administrator needs

As the search will begin for the next administrator, the nominee needs the know-how understand the procurement world and the skills to see what in that world needs attention, experts say. Decisions and policy initiatives have far-reaching effects, such as rebuilding the acquisition workforce and insourcing government work.

Burton said it’s a very technical field and not merely a management position.

"And with only two years, you don’t want to spend the first six months helping the new administrator understand the Federal Acquisition Regulation, he said.

Gordon brought significant expertise from his 17-year stint at the Government Accountability Office, where he served in several legal roles, finishing as acting general counsel.

“Dan has brought a mixture of great substantive procurement knowledge and great interpersonal skills to this job—exactly the mix of skills you want in an OFPP administrator,” Kelman said.

Gordon set the bar high for the next political appointee to have technical knowledge, according to experts.

And so the search for a new administrator begins.

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