Kelman: Let the vendor perform

DHS deserves praise for its approach to the Secure Border Initiative contract

By now most people know the performance-based contracting mantra: Tell the vendors what results you want and let them decide how to achieve those results.

The mantra makes sense. One important reason the government awards contracts is to tap the expertise of outside experts who specialize in meeting customers’ requirements for, say, database technology, military aircraft or cafeteria management. The government is — or should be — good at knowing what it wants. Vendors are good at figuring out how to meet those needs. If the government tells a vendor what to do and that solution doesn’t work, the vendor has an excuse for not delivering. The vendor can say, “I did what you told me to do.” But if the government tells the vendor what results it wants, the vendor is on the hook for finding a way to deliver those results.

All this sounds logical, and the Homeland Security Department did exactly that earlier this year in its request for proposals for the Secure Border Initiative’s SBInet, a program to build a protective virtual border around the country. DHS recently awarded the SBInet contract to Boeing. In the RFP, DHS presented a statement of objectives explaining the results it sought and asked vendors to bid a technical solution and performance metrics to achieve those objectives.

DHS has been criticized for that approach. For example, DHS’ inspector general wrote that “the RFP’s broadly defined statement of objectives approach, coupled with undefined requirements, leaves programs vulnerable to failure and cost overruns.” And the Federal Times quotes a sociology professor who said, “Homeland Security is abdicating its responsibility. Where is the vision and leadership? They’re tossing it to contractors and saying, ‘You come up with the solutions.’ It’s unheard of.”

Hold on a moment. One might worry about a statement of objectives approach if there were only one vendor proposal and only one proposed solution. However, the SBInet contract was bid competitively. It attracted five proposals, each representing a different solution to the problem that DHS needed to solve.

DHS officials picked the vendor whose solution they believed represented the best value. The multiple bids kept the government in the driver’s seat.

Interestingly, DHS resisted the temptation to choose the whiz-bang futuristic technology that some of Boeing’s competitors offered in favor of a less expensive, lower-tech and, therefore, lower-risk alternative.

Boeing’s technical approach has been incorporated into its contract, so it is inaccurate to suggest that the contract has no technical requirements. In this case, the government didn’t develop its own technical requirements — the vendor did. The SBInet contract, we’re told, includes performance metrics to which the vendor is committed, although DHS hasn’t disclosed what those are.

The success of this contract is by no means guaranteed. Much could go wrong in the execution of the contract, on the part of the government and the vendor. But its performance-based approach has positioned DHS for a greater chance of success than would have been possible otherwise.

The approach that DHS’ IG advocates would return contracting to the Dark Ages in which, to use the phrase of Chip Mather of Acquisition Solutions, “Government contracted for compliance, not results.” Maybe that’s the way IGs like contracting to be, but it’s not so good for government.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.