As government watchdog groups continue to focus on ways to reform the acquisition process and create greater transparency, the issue of requirements seems to be a common denominator for many examples of waste, fraud, and abuse in federal procurement.
Dr. Steve Kelman wrote on his Federal Computer Week blog The Lectern about approaching the issue from the perspective of the acquisition phase. This interesting perspective offers a lot of promise, as the current process is simply not sufficient to find true best value in federal procurements. Now, vendors are made to endure writing contests in response to a government solicitation at great time and expense that don’t necessarily respond to the government’s needs. It becomes about the writing and not the substance. The result is that contractors either do not execute on what they proposed, or the government does not manage the contract effectively by holding contractors accountable, or a combination of both. How do we prevent this from happening?
One approach is the use of oral presentations. Although this technique is gathering more traction in procurements, especially for IT, it should be used with more frequency to evaluate an offeror as a potential business partner. Because of the focus on the written response, many government contractors have proposal development experts or even proposal development organizations within their respective companies that have years of experience responding to federal proposals. The end result is that contractors are great at responding to proposals, but without those responsible for actually doing the work being more involved in writing proposals, the execution will be lacking.
This approach of involving the implementers would go much further in ensuring a proposal is more than just eloquent prose, but an actionable document that becomes part of the contract, and how it will be executed and managed. Many procurement officials are left wondering if vendor program managers even read their own proposals. Government officials who do not hold contractors accountable for the successful outcome of a program exacerbate this process. The result is failure, or the status quo. Supplementing written submissions with oral presentation can help alleviate this problem by ensuring the government can have a face-to-face meeting with a potential contractor, and get a better sense of what they are buying.
For oral presentations to be successful, the government must require that the vendor personnel who will actively manage and execute the program be the ones to conduct the presentation. Otherwise, the government will get business development personnel who are trained, and excel, in selling. The government needs to focus on executing, not marketing.
Further, these oral presentations need to be rated and evaluated as part of the source selection. Increasingly oral presentations are conducted with little effort toward ensuring a program can be successful or that the offeror is a good fit to solve the government’s problem. Oral presentations are an excellent way to cut through the smoke screen of a wonderfully written proposal that either does not fully address the government’s need, is fraught with risk, or simply is marketing disguised as solutions.
Another effective tool that should be used more frequently is the post-award conference which brings together key individuals from both sides, and ensures both accountability and responsibility are at the forefront of contract management and execution. This sets up both parties for success by ensuring that the contractor understands the government’s requirements and that roles and responsibilities are established for all parties. It also ensures the government understands the proposed solution, associated risks, quality control, program management, and issues in administering the contract. Hosting ineffective conferences or simply not conducting them at all on complex acquisitions, and for many other IT programs, is inexcusable. The current process of government and industry program managers shaking hands and going off to the races to waste taxpayer money must come to an end.
Although these techniques are nothing new, they can go a long way to turning around poor acquisition outcomes. Certainly the current requirements development process is broken and needs to have a thorough review to address. However, executing on current federal requirements can see improvements if both industry and government understand that they are not reinventing the wheel. Slight changes in business processes and conducting effective contract management require simply adhering to disciplined implementation.