A tribute to Soraya Correa, DHS' procurement icon

Steve Kelman reflects on a 40-year career that brought real innovation to federal acquisition.

Soraya Correa

Supporting the mission.

Innovation.

Communication between industry and government.

These are the central themes of efforts to improve our procurement system since the 1990s. And Soraya Correa, who has just stepped down from a 40-year career in government contracting, most recently as Chief Procurement Officer at the Department of Homeland Security, spontaneously describes these as the central themes of her own amazing procurement career. I have been lucky enough to know Correa for over a decade, and I recently sat down to talk with her to look back.

Correa’s grandparents came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico and settled in New York City, where many Puerto Ricans came. (She speaks fluent Spanish.) I was amazed to learn in our conversation that her dad was actually a career federal contracting officer, at GSA and the Small Business Administration in New York and Washington.

Out of high school (she graduated in 1982), Correa herself started working part time and taking some college classes. “But I really wanted to work on a full-time basis,” she said. “And so my father suggested, ‘Well, why don't you come into the federal government? It's a good job. You'll get a good pay and then you can decide what you really want to do when you grow up.’” (She finally got a BA in business administration many years later, in 2002.)

Correa’s first government job was as a GS-4 clerk-typist (this is incidentally how Dee Lee, who eventually became the senior procurement executive at NASA, also started). She took a night course in procurement and grants management, and based on that became a GS-5 contract specialist at the Naval Sea Systems command, which has produced a number of procurement legends over the years -- Elaine Duke, who later became undersecretary for management at DHS and for a time served as acting secretary, and the Defense Department’s Eleanor Spector, among others.

Interestingly, in Correa’s first contracting job she worked for a program manager, not, as most do, for a procurement shop. This is an arrangement some, such as me, favor because it promotes commitment by contracting folks to the mission.

“It was there” – as a GS-5 – “I developed my passion, my commitment, and my understanding of mission,” Correa said. “Because everything we did there revolved around mission. And it was about making sure that we had all the right assets at the right place to get the job done. And so I really do credit that position with kind of instilling in me the sense of purpose I've never forgotten.”

The next 25 years were a series of telephone calls recruiting Correa for a slew of always-higher jobs at different agencies, including NASA, the Environmental Protection Agency, and Citizenship and Immigration Services at DHS. Some of her jobs were in IT. In 2014 she was a few months from retirement eligibility, but then a phone call came asking her to be the chief procurement officer at DHS.

“I took that job because I really wanted to make a difference,” she said. “I've always been the person that questions why we do things the way we do, why can't we change the dynamic? Why can't we talk to industry differently? Why do we, you know, do the things the same way we've always done them? And so I saw it really as a great opportunity to come in as the chief procurement officer. I knew this department. I knew the organization and the organizational structure of the CPO, and I knew where our strengths and weaknesses were. And I really, really did want to make a difference.”

Correa describes her philosophy as follows: “Yes, we have to comply with laws and regulations. That is our job. Our job is to make sure that we get compliance right. But we're here to support a mission. We're here to make sure that a mission gets executed and that it's done right. And we can balance those two things. We can make those two things happen.”

“So when I came into the position of chief procurement officer, when I sat down with my team, the first thing that I made clear … is that we're here to support a mission,” she said. “The procurement function doesn't exist just to exist. We buy things in support of the missions that we serve. We're here to enable the mission.”

”We're not going to write policy for policy sake. Every policy, every process, every procedure that we are going to write or we are going to look at it, or we're going to refine, we are going to seek the advice and input of the operational contracting organizations. We're going to go sit and talk to them, make sure that they can execute.”

”I didn't want to do procurement for them,” she explained. “I wanted them to do it because it's their idea. But let's guide them through the process and let's collect feedback along the way so that we can course correct that we need to, but more importantly, so we can teach others. And I wasn't trying to force innovation. I resisted those who wanted me to dictate innovation because there are people out there said, well, we should legislate this. And I'm like, no, innovation is not legislated or dictated, and it doesn't fit everybody. Some people are very comfortable being creative and trying new things and others are not. We're not going to force it. We're going to take the people that are willing to be creative and innovative.”

There are several achievements I associate with Correa. One is her signature initiative, started soon after she became chief procurement officer, the Procurement Innovation Lab, which I blogged about a while ago.

“The lab was stood up to be my voice to the procurement community, to say, come on and bring me your ideas and let us help you cultivate those ideas,” she explained. “And the only requirements that I imposed was, contracting officer or program manager, you guys have to bring not only yourselves, the CO, the PM, but you got to bring your legal counsel as well.”

The second was her origination of the brilliant idea to use vendor “tech demos” in source selection, where bidders actually worked on a project in real time rather than having everything based on voluminous written proposals. The third was, when she experimented for the first time with tech demos and the project went south because there were too many bidders and the efforts couldn’t be evaluated properly.

At a meeting with the media announcing the cancellation, Correa recalled, “They said, ‘What went wrong?’ And I stood up and I said, ‘I went wrong.’ That's what went wrong. What went wrong is on me as the chief procurement officer of this department, we needed to do things a little bit differently. And that's my responsibility. And people were like in awe and I think a lot of people thought, I guess, that my head was going to get lopped off, you know. And I went, ‘Look, it's still attached.’”

“I had to go to the Hill and talk to staffers and explain to them what happened,” she said. “But here's what people figured out. It died down pretty quickly. The world didn't stop revolving and companies, you know, didn't march in front of my building. And I didn't get tarred and feathered, you know. In other words, we survived. … We made a mistake and we survived. And what I said was, ‘Folks, when you take when you take chances, but you explain to people what's the chance you're taking, what it is you're trying to do and how you're going to do it, and you keep people informed about what you're doing, you're probably going to be OK.’”

Also, I shouldn’t forget to add that Correa also ran what is arguably the most successful strategic sourcing program in the government – an area sadly dominated by paper compliance rather than accomplishment. She established commodity councils with DHS components that consolidated purchases, lowered prices, and got better service for stuff such as bullets and sidearms. 

In my next blog about Correa, I will discuss her work to improve communications between government and industry.

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