Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How Does a Small Business Get on an IDIQ?

Some of the trends that have been written about in 2012, and beyond, is the government relying more and more on issuing task orders via IDIQ vehicles, as opposed to full and open competition and the normal acquisition process.

Although many courses and consultants discuss winning these task orders, little information is available on actually winning the IDIQ, and as a result, winning the ability to even compete for a task order.  
  • What is the best way to research these IDIQ opportunities?
  • How does a small business get on these IDIQs?
  • What is the best strategy to position yourself to win the IDIQ?

Monday, December 12, 2011

Contractors Are Mission Critical, Not a Necessary Evil

Former head of the Coalition for Government Procurement Larry Allen, now President of Allen Federal Business Partners, wrote a spot on article recently calling out the absurdity of the current environment of anti-contractor sentiment running rampant throughout the federal government.

Recent examples of these activities, among many, includes the Office of Management and Budget’s recent directive to ramp suspension and debarment operations, and the Air Force’s actual debarment of Iron Bow Technologies. Although this debarment was later overturned, it seems that this action was a direct result of the “get tough” policies.

Of note was the actual reversal, as a direct result of the Air Force and Iron Bow working together to address the issues leading up the debarment, and mitigation strategies to prevent any future occurrences. In other words, actions that should have occurred without the need of the seemingly knee-jerk debarment by the Air Force.

Further exacerbating the “greedy contractor” paradigm, and as noted by Allen, is Shay Assad, the director of pricing for the Department of Defense, announcing a more stringent pricing policy with contractors, in addition to the directions to cut service contracts by another 20 percent. Now with the Senate passing a Defense Authorization Bill that caps executive pay for contractors at $400,000, it seems that senior federal officials feel the need to squeeze the vice even further.

With the government continuing to freeze pay and hiring in critical areas, in addition to offering early buyouts, the expected outcome can only be further erosion of performance. With fewer government personnel, in addition fewer qualified and trained personnel since training is also getting cut, waste, fraud, and abuse will keep the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Inspector Generals gainfully employed. On second thought, GAO is also cutting staff. Perhaps the Commission of Wartime Contracting will reopen its doors in the near future to report on billions in waste, and just drop the Wartime from its title.

Contractors perform vital functions, and more pressure will be put on industry to perform more with less. However, it is being done in an environment where profit margins are being cut to the bone, lowest cost is now the only variable, and many small businesses are in danger of extinction with cuts to contracts, and subcontracts.

The fact is this: Contractors perform messy services that no one else wants to do. They fix things that break in the middle of the night. They are absolutely essential to the efficient running of the enterprise. They should be treated with the respect commensurate with the role they play. Mistakes happen, and bad actors exist. But it’s past time to give credit where it is due.

We would be better served working together, and stopping this animosity.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

GAO and Success: Acquisition Workforce the Common Factor

With the collapse of the Congressional “supercommittee’s” budget deal on deficit reduction, federal managers, and their industry counterparts, are being told to prepare for the worst , as possible mandatory cuts are on the horizon for 2013.

In the mean time, federal managers will need to continue to find ways to save money and do more with less. To help programs succeed, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) recently came out with a report that highlights best practices for IT acquisition and execution. Combined with the Office of Management and Budget's 25 point IT reform plan, these two products create a powerful blueprint for what programs should be doing to improve outcomes, and be considered successful by meeting cost, schedule, and performance goals.

The one common denominator for program success is a steady, skilled acquisition workforce to execute these other principals. This should not come as a surprise. However, what was surprising is that the Defense Information Systems Agency's Global Combat Support System-Joint program did not list this fact as a critical success factor (similar to 6 out of 7 dentists recommend flossing for healthy teeth? Who actually goes to that one dentist?)

Putting aside the other factors, having a skilled, trained and stable acquisition workforce is critical to success in any program, and more than now than ever. The acquisition workforce, especially in contracting, must be able to act as business advisors and really lead the way in helping shape sound business practices. This includes pre-acquisition through contract execution. The program manager, in addition to the use of Integrated Program Teams, also are critical to ensuring that everyone is building requirements properly, proper contracts and metrics are in place, and then of course executing using the sound business practices categorized in the GAO report.

Regretfully, these budgets cuts and contract reductions can only be a detriment to implementing these best practices. With hiring freezes, reducing training budgets, and mandates to cut services contracts (such as acquisition support contracts), fewer opportunities will exist to improve performance. Coupled with the "low price at all cost" contract selection methodology, a thousand cuts are on the way to an environment of even further reduced performance, in addition to more fraud, waste, and abuse.

GAO and Inspector Generals will be quite busy in the next 24 months, but reports of program success will more than likely be a distant memory in this future timeframe.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Are One-on-Ones Necessary for Market Research?

As the government looks for way to save money and improve performance, the topic of adopting best practices for IT acquisitions continues to be at the forefront of the conversation. However, implementing those best practices continue to be challenging, especially in the thought process when comes to one-on-one sessions.

When it comes to market research, the government continues to struggle to open the door to industry, thus robbing itself of improvements on the overall acquisition process. Specifically, requirements continue to be developed in a vacuum, exacerbated by poorly defined stakeholders analysis and moving forward without understanding needs.

In the commercial sector, the closer firms get to signing a contract, the more collaboration occurs. However, the opposite is true in the federal sector. Incoming contractors should be given all the information that is not proprietary to the incumbent to be successful, including budgets and prices currently paid for incumbent services.

However, some government procurement officials disagree. According to these officials, it is up to industry to respond fully and openly with responses to an RFI and during an Industry Day. Further, it is simply a matter of time versus value, as industry will simply use the opportunity in a one-on-one to strengthen their position during capture management by trying to slant government requirements in their direction.

The more government communicates with industry, the more likely the government will get quality services at realistic prices. Although it has almost become standard practice for government buyers to hold an Industry Day, it is assumed that no further communications with industry are necessary. Further, many buying offices simply will not conduct one-on-one meetings with vendors because of incorrectly assuming that favoritism and ethical issues are land mines that should be avoided at all costs.

Questions for industry and government:
  1. How do we work together to change these perceptions? 
  2. Are one-on-ones worth the time and effort, from both perspectives? 
  3. What other tools are available to increase collaboration?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Your Taxpayer Dollar$ at Work: Volume III – Muffin Edition (Update)

So the $16 muffin is back in the news as the Department of Justice (DOJ) Inspector General made updates to its previous report by correcting the record, and bowing to the sensationalist media coverage that yes, the muffin itself did not cost $16. 

Correcting the record is a good thing. However, what the sensationalist media forgets, and what seems to be ignored, is the fact that the DOJ, in addition to the federal government itself, is not doing enough due diligence to ensure that the these expenditures are in the best interest of the organization or that they are being good stewards of taxpayer funds. The report correction goes on further to say that all-inclusive lunches cost $76. Will this be the subject of the next series of reports?

Putting aside the full court press of public relations activity by the hospitality industry, how does government know they are getting the best value? Having done this myself over the years, I have always tried to negotiate better pricing for conference space, refreshments, meals, etc. by playing venues off one another to get the best deal for my needs. I do not doubt that the venues are being flexible to get my business, but how can the government buyers say with a straight face they too are getting the best prices? Further, what options are being explored to find more cost effective means of holding these conferences and training (i.e. videoconferencing, other federal spaces, etc.)?

It is this willful ignorance that explains why we can continue to expect the inability to create budgets, more focus on nonsense, and putting aside effective governance and accountability for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Performance Outcomes: Judgment Day is Coming

So Fiscal Year (FY) 2011 is now in the books, and the new government FY 2012 begins. I don't think anyone can argue that this end of FY was one of the most challenging end of FYs in recent memory, with budgetary issues and Continuing Resolutions adding to a sense of doom in industry, if not outright confusion and desperation in most government procurement shops. Many of the acquisition divisions at federal agencies did not have a clear sense of what the budgets and fiscal environment for the rest of the year would be, thanks to a dysfunctional political system and a Congress willing to sellout stable government operations in the name of political sensationalism and outright partisanship at the expense of the nation.

From what I have seen over the last few months and winding up this FY, coupled with the bleak fiscal horizon in the next few years, government operations are in serious trouble. Frankly, if you think government operations are bad now, you ain't seen nothing yet. The Government Accountability Office, Office of Management and Budget, and other watchdog groups and organizations can expect their workload to increase to the point of trying to move a mountain with a shovel.

One only need taking a look at what is happening with alarming regularity, and will no doubt continue as the government continues to find ways to save money and reduce the amount of contractor support and contracted dollars; low price is the only price.

Granted low price, despite illusions of "best value" has always been around, things seem to be spiraling out of control. I have seen with alarming frequency contracts be awarded to low-priced bids, at prices that are ridiculously low compared to both other bidders and government estimates. Sometimes 20% or more below. So much for price not being the most important factor. Price reasonableness and realism? Looking at the bottom-line figure is not enough. Sometimes performance costs money, and should actually save money in the long-run. That is a concept seemingly lost on procurement officials right now.

Although "buying in" is a prohibited practice according to the Federal Acquisition Regulation, it has now become a sanctioned activity. Expect to see many more fixed priced contracts, despite the requirement, in addition to modification after modification. Performance will be an afterthought, as multipliers in industry (the final amount that a contractor bills the government for a dollar of labor, often referred to as “loaded” cost) get lower and lower. Anything less than 2.4 is considered inexpensive; with 2.4 – 2.7 the norm and anything greater than 2.7 considered expensive. I have heard of firms lowering their multipliers to 1.9 to be competitive. Competitive? How can you be profitable?

Size is the answer, as only very large firms can absorb that type of contract strategy. Make it up in volume, and the modification circus that poorly written and "cheap" contracts is also another outcome. This strategy simply decreases competition, especially for small businesses, and will result in even further poor contract performance. Just what we need. Forget about even developing proper requirements, as that is now a cost driver.

So how to you staff these contracts if you are "lucky" enough to win a contract? Answer: on the cheap. Hire know-nothing consultants straight out of college or inexperienced staff to support the requirement, pay them rock-bottom salaries with little if any benefits, and put them through the sausage grinder for a couple of years. Repeat the process. How will government get any decent performance? The current environment and abilities of the acquisition workforce are not conducive for governance and oversight as it is. Now you're going to expect them to provide even more?

Industry: How are you planning to succeed in this environment? What adjustments are you making? What experiences have you had in this "new" low-cost paradigm?

Government: What are you doing to ensure performance with such a low-price? What price reasonableness and realism checks are being done? What technical acceptability checks are being done?

Friday, September 23, 2011

Your Taxpayer Dollar$ at Work: Volume III – Muffin Edition

This week's news of the absurdity of waste, fraud, and abuse across government comes from the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Audit Division. Their report, titled Audit of Department of Justice Conference Planning and Food and Beverage Costs is a follow-up to a previous September 2007 which examined expenditures for 10 major DOJ conferences held between October 2004 and September 2006. That audit found that DOJ had few internal controls to limit the expense of conference planning and food and beverage costs at DOJ conferences. This report highlights the same story, and little to no corrective actions by DOJ to mitigate this waste. Makes you think fondly of the $50 hammers and $500 toilet seats of Defense back in the 80s, doesn't it?

Of course politicians and the media jumped on the story for easy press, zeroing in on the $16 muffins and nearly $10 cookies served to attendees at one event. Emily Ingram of the Washington Post created a good competitive landscape of the muffin offerings in Washington, and only at government conferences will those prices apply. What is even worse is that DOJ officials basically stated they thought they were addressing the issue:

...Justice officials did not dispute most of the findings. The department did not offer an official to speak by name, but a spokeswoman who was not authorized to comment publicly said the agency “agrees that excessive spending of the types identified in the report should not occur” and has taken steps to prevent it. She said conference costs have been cut this year as part of an effort to curtail non­essential spending, though she could not specify an amount. 
Justice Department officials gave auditors a variety of explanations for the expenses, saying consultants they hired to help plan events had valuable knowledge and that the department had done its best to control costs. Officials from one Justice office said they thought they were saving money by serving muffins and other snacks instead of full meals...
You're not saving money DOJ, you're wasting it needlessly.

The OIG recommendations are pretty straight forward: itemize costs and ensure you have adequate price analysis to ensure "best value." These controls need to go much further by commoditizing these expenditures, of course itemizing all costs (both direct and indirect), and ensure no surprises and real best-value. There are many other quality, yet reasonable, venues that can accommodate these functions other than the Ritz Carlton.

Adequate market research must be conducted, lessons learned applied, and opportunities for strategic sourcing and leveraging the buying power of the government must be utilized. Further, perhaps this is an opportunity to consolidate BPAs across government and further leverage buying power, in addition to possible using reverse auctions to drive down prices. Cost savings of these types of expenditures are really low-hanging fruit, akin to eliminating free coffee or soda in the break room, which makes this report even more shocking at the level of waste rampant in government.

We obviously have a long way to go in reducing spending, although a thorough spend analysis of these commodity-type of expenditures could probably find millions, if not billions, in needless waste and efficiencies. The opportunities to save money are everywhere. Just look in the snack basket apparently.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How Do You Stop A Contracting Disaster?

In light of the new inherently governmental rules that have been published by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, decision making by the government in regard to acquisition strategy comes to mind. When it comes to hiring contractors to assist in performing acquisition functions, it is very much a caveat emptor situation.

Contracting is a difficult subject, that requires expertise. There are many IT and Program Management firms that continue to receive contracts to provide acquisition support, although they do not have the competency or the skill set to provide it. They just happen to be there providing other support services, are an 8(a) so you can sole-source a contract, or see these opportunities because of the desperate need by government. So why not assist with procurements? It is just paper-pushing anyway, with little value-added service, right? Hardly.

What is happening is that IT Program Managers with a few DAU classes under their belts are making incompetent recommendations related to contract type, acquisition strategy, and requirements. Because the federal IT clients do not understand contracting, and the acquisition shops are overloaded and not providing sound business advice, the government relies on poor advice in its decision making.

Contracts worth millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, are being made in this dysfunctional environment. The government continues to bleed, and incompetent contractors continue to be paid. The inherently governmental rules allow contractors to provide guidance and advice, but little vetting of competency and skill set seems to be happening due to pressures of desperately needing support, and the need to increase contract throughput. These services, when done right, can be very critical to supporting this crucial government management mission. I am not advocating they go away, but in looking at inherently governmental functions, the government really needs to be careful what it is getting and why.

How can we honestly discuss acquisition reform when this environment exists?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Contingency Contracting Failures: It's About the People

The big story before the Labor Day holiday was the release of the final report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC). According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the enormous dollar volume of waste and the assumption of the over-reliance on contractors for contingency operations was the focus of the report. I very much respect POGO's work, but I respectfully disagree.

The major issue is the quality of the acquisition workforce. In agreement was Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who stated that two areas in the report that jumped out to her was the Defense Department culture and the lack of qualified and too few contracting professionals as main reasons for the waste. Although I normally focus on quality, it was the quantity on this issue that was also a major failure.

..."I think the dirty little secret that has now been exposed-in fact this goes governmentwide and not just in wartime contracting-is that if you don't have the personnel that work for the federal government, rather than increase the personnel and the costs associated with that, go out and contract," she said. "This has occurred to a large extent in the Department of Homeland Security, it's occurred in a number of places and we have been doing that while we have hollowed out our acquisition personnel. We need to make investment in government employees that know how to police this and we frankly have dropped the ball in that regard."...

What the report simply fails to address is the political realities made with these decisions. Hearts and minds needed to be won, and thus materialized the pictures in Iraq of U.S. personnel sitting a top pallets of U.S. currency, handing it out like candy to win favor in line with local cultural norms. In Afghanistan, bounties were paid to find "terrorists,"so locals sold their neighbors up the river to win favor with the U.S., make more money than they ever have before, and take over land and settle old scores. Warlords also were paid off, although sympathies to al Qaeda and Taliban forces continue to be difficult to determine. How much waste went to the enemy? Perhaps that is the $30 Billion that the report mentions in possible unaccounted for waste. Any oversight with these issues?

The realities for personnel are that contingency contracting may be one of the most difficult areas of contract management, as local customs and norms may interfere with transparency and oversight, making the glaring lack of adequate training even more difficult to comprehend. Further, how many people across Defense, State, and USAID have any formal training? Obviously not enough. It got so bad that Defense was actually considering giving every lowly grunt going into theatre some form of contract training!

Coordination and collaboration across these agencies means creating a Contingency Contracting Corps, shared among the agencies, that can perform the contingency contracting mission across the globe. They would be the "special forces" of contracting; the tip of the spear to ensure accountability to the taxpayer. This of course requires a massive overhaul in the training curriculum available to the acquisition workforce, which of course needs to include revamping services contracting and commercial item acquisition. A much broader skill set would also need to be considered, one that needs to be factored in for hiring or designation to this mission.

After 10 years of war, and the 15 strategic recommendations made by the Commission, I hope that Congress understands the issues at stake. We need to invest in the acquisition workforce, and fully fund these initiatives that can have vast returns with upfront investments. I would like to think that government management of this scale would easily be an election year issue, but perhaps it will not make effective sound bites.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Policy Reviews Will Not Improve Government Procurement

As part of the continuing push by the Administration to reduce the amount of redundancy and to cut red tape through a review of existing federal regulations, agencies recently announced their final plans that describe what they will begin to consider as possible reforms to current regulations to execute on the President’s Executive Order.

The plans look at variety of issues, including increasing competition, payments to small businesses, and vendor communications with government. In addition, the final plan for regulatory reviews also includes conflicts of interest, how to properly review a company’s past performances, and working with the Small Business Administration to update rules for using set-aside contracts and small business subcontracting plans.

Although the regulatory review plans are long overdue, and definitely needed, I am not sure the fundamental issues at the heart of the problems are regulatory in nature.

In July, the Department of Defense (DOD) proposed changes to the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation Supplement’s rules on how DOD gets a fair or reasonable price from a company when only one-bid is received. Under the proposed new rules, Contracting Officers would have to re-compete the solicitation for at least another 30 days, and would have to determine prices to be reasonable through price or cost analysis or they can enter negotiations with the company that made the bid. However, the proposed regulatory change does not even discuss a comprehensive review of requirements or acquisition strategy, which more than likely led to the one-bid in the first place.

Regulatory reviews also plan to look at FAR 15, and regulatory obstacles to vendor communications. In fact, the regulations are clear on best practices and what is permissible prior to RFP release, even though it is not getting done. Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), plans to discuss the rules about communications, and provide more guidance via a proposed memo by the end of 2011.

This memo would be a continuation of the OFPP's Myth Busters Campaign that discusses the misconceptions about government and industry communications. The Better Government IT initiative was created to help in this effort, but it is through this crowdsourcing that best practices can be reviewed, not through a review of regulations.

Mandating the use of current policy and regulations does not seem to be a viable option for ensuring government executes on these issues. It is through concerted leadership to execute existing policy and actively solicit best practices that we can expect to see effective change.

Eliminating burdesome policies and regualtions that create barriers to entry and create costs to government and industry would be welcome, but I am not sure this policy review will be as productive as might expected by its proponents.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

MythBusters Call For Participation

Continuing the ongoing campaign to improve government and industry relations through the "Mythbusters" initiatives, the American Council for Technology (ACT) - Industry Advisory Council (IAC) has put up an initial list for comment and expansion to deliver on finding the "Top Ten."

Please visit the BetterGovernmentIT.org site to offer your comments and suggestions, and to vote on the top ten vendor-friendly strategies. The site will be active until 9/9! Help us help Government – visit bettergovernmentit.org and provide your input!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Your Taxpayer Dollar$ at Work: Volume II

Last year I started a series to highlight outrageous cases of waste, fraud, and abuse by the federal government. In the current environment of complete political theatre and legislative dysfunction leading to budget crises, debt ceilings, and continuous resolutions, I can probably write a book with so much material. However, I wanted to focus on a truly outrageous case of fraud and waste that is shocking, even when we succumb to the worst stereotypical fears of our government.

According to a recent inspector general report at the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), $540 million dollars annually worth of business is being awarded to companies that fail to meet eligibility requirements for veteran owned small businesses or service-disabled veteran owned small businesses. The report stated these results were extrapolated from audit results, which assumes $540 million, and could add up to $2.5 billion over the next 5 years. The report further estimates that factoring out ineligible businesses, the VA only awarded 12 percent of its procurement dollars to actual veteran owned small businesses (VOSBs) and 10 percent to service disabled veteran owned businesses (SDVOSBs), as opposed to the 23 and 20 percent it said it did during fiscal 2010. Half a billion in estimated fraud? Give me a break.

The main culprit, not surprisingly, is the lack of accountability, according to testimony before the House Veterans Affairs' subcommittee on oversight and investigations by Belinda Finn, assistant inspector general for audits and evaluations at the VA OIG.

…Ineligible businesses received awards because VA's office of small and disadvantaged business utilization was not thoroughly reviewing business documentation and performing site visits to verify the veteran-owned status, said Finn. The OIG also found that contracting officers did not always check VA's enterprise veterans database, business size classification codes, or properly assess subcontracting and partnering agreements…

Once again the lack of resources and strain on the acquisition workforce was blamed, although this is a false argument. There is absolutely no excuse for not verifying eligibility of a firm for these types of set-aside programs, not to mention the subcontracting and partnering agreements. Where is the protection of the public’s trust?

Also of note is that only 30% of service disabled veteran contracts are with the VA, so this is a widespread issue. Obviously unethical firms and individuals are taking advantage of the lack of oversight, but there is no reason why VOSBs and SDVOSBs should be self-certifications. These programs should have formal certification processes similar to 8(a).

Although the VA has verification programs in place through its Center for Veteran Enterprise, it is woefully inadequate and cumbersome. You need your DD-214, adjudication letter from the VA (for SDVOSB), and corporate documentation showing 51% ownership and control. That is it. The current document requests are intrusive, and privacy is a risk. Explain to me how requiring 14 voided checks proves I am eligible?

Taxpayers are at risk in this program, and I hope the government, especially at the VA, understand the depths of this massive fraud being per perpetrated on taxpayers and veterans.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Industry and Government Relations Continue To Be A Challenge

Recently at the National Contract Management Association’s World Congress in Denver, the clouds and storms that rolled into the mile-high city were harbingers of things to come for the week as the relationship between government and industry seems to continue a downward trend at a time when it needs to improve. However, it is the current adversarial atmosphere that was on full display at the conference and illustrated the difficulties that lay ahead in improving and creating an environment of productive communications.

The conference kicked off with an address by Linda Hudson, CEO for BAE Systems, who explained the difficulties that businesses currently face, and the troubles that are on the horizon. A panel session proceeded immediately following the speech, aptly entitled “Show Me the Money—Corporate Survival in Tough Economic Times.”

It is simply a matter a fact that budgets will shrink or remain flat for the foreseeable future, and businesses must adjust to this reality. However, another reality is the ever increasing pile of regulations, oversight, and scrutiny that contractors must continue to deal with. From new ethics regulations, numerous reporting requirements, and ever increasing mandates on security, contractors must comply with this new environment and the subsequent increases in costs of doing business. There simply is no choice, either comply or fold. It is this compliance with current, and what can only be more and more future regulations and increasing oversight, that creates the choices for industry in how they can try to remain competitive. These choices will result in increasing layoffs, scaling back of benefits, decreasing small business subcontracting opportunities, and a restructuring of the industrial base to remain viable and profitable.

Further exacerbating the issue is the continued focus on risk-transference to industry through more and more focus on fixed price contracts, regardless of requirements. Because requirements continue to be poorly or inadequately defined, the result is increased costs to both industry and government in time and money to adhere to a construct that should have never been developed in the first place. This leads to industry having to continue readjusting their pricing strategies to remain competitive through lower and lower priced bids, to the point where margins are razor thin and profitability suffers even more.

I was disappointed at remarks made by Dr. Steve Kelman on his FCW blog, as he seemed to ignore the fact that industry is facing the most difficult period in some time, and will continue to suffer. Barely mentioned is the vulnerability of small businesses, who will face fewer opportunities and even more risk through insourcing. This issue was barely addressed by both the panel and Dr. Kelman, a significant deficiency that I addressed to the panel via a question, but it did not get answered. It is comments like Dr. Kelman’s and the environment he describes that illustrates the work ahead.

The real factor to working in this environment productively is through increased and transparent communications between government and industry, and an understanding that both sides actually do have the same objective. That is, completing a mission on time, and within budget. However, that reality and the current environment for industry seem to be lost on government, and the tone at the NCMA conference exacerbated the “us versus them” attitude. Both sides need to understand the mission from each side’s perspective, and understand the impacts actions have on completing that mission. This is of vital interest to effective government management, and deteriorating relationships will make getting the job done that much more difficult for all parties in the challenging times that lay ahead.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Improving the IT Acquisition Process

Federal Computer Week ran an interesting article recently on the many ideas and suggestions for improving the IT acquisition process. Their report was the result of the “Smarter Federal IT Initiatives: High Quality, Cost-Effective and On-Time” event sponsored by the Association of Management Consulting Firms in March. This event, featuring a panel of subject-matter experts, offered ideas for improving each aspect of the acquisition life cycle. Their ideas were certainly intriguing, from both a perspective of what was said, and what was not said.

Steve Cooper, director of IT and CIO at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Air Traffic Organization, discussed business value and how it is measured, or not measured, in federal technology programs.

…What often occurs with many projects delivering IT-enabled solutions is a lack of agreement at the beginning of the project on what business value will result from the project and how best to measure it. A worst case might be no discussion of business value occurs at all. With every project, we need to respond to the question, "Was this the best use of taxpayer dollars?" and then be able to prove it…

…The toughest challenge is agreeing on how to measure and prove the realization of that expected value. Discussion upfront can prevent the use of a metric that will require inordinate amounts of effort to collect…

How on Earth are projects getting approved with no business cases, or poorly defined business cases without a discussion of return on investment? I agree that a project does not always have financial returns, but those benefits need to be addressed, along with a plan on measuring during the execution phase. This in itself is one of the main concerns; the poor quality of data across government. Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Dan Gordon recently issued a memo concerning this issue, along with guidelines on how to improve data quality, and more importantly, accountability for ensuring its viability. The government is drowning in data, and most of it is of such poor quality that good decision-making is stunted, or impossible.

David Swatloski, a major defense acquisition program manager at the Department of Defense (DoD), seemed to be speaking from recent experience in the poor state of requirements development process at DoD:

…Market research allows the government to determine what potential solutions are available that might meet the government’s needs. This is not an insignificant problem to address properly. If the government need is communicated in terms of a problem statement with a desired outcome, business can respond with more potential solutions. In a great number of cases when this approach is used, more solutions and capabilities are disclosed…

Leveraging industry’s knowledge of technology is critical to the pre-acquisition phase, but it first starts with an acknowledgment from the DoD that they no longer have the institutional knowledge they once had. Only through an outcome-based approach to developing requirements can DoD have the opportunity for the innovation and the variance in solutions and competition it desires.

…The federal acquisition regulations do not preclude hands-on, face-to-face discussion and open communication to understand capabilities during market research. Face-to-face discussions, demonstrations and visits to see capability are the best ways to conduct market research. These methods improve communication and understanding…

The risk-averse nature of government, coupled with the lack of leadership and support for risk taking have created a calcified environment where treating industry fairly means not to deal with industry at all. This is a significant cultural issue that needs to be rectified to have the two-way knowledge transfer take place to improve requirements, and thus the likelihood of successful programs. Failed programs always fail at the beginning of their life-cycle; the pre- and acquisition phases. It has ultimately developed into a seemingly caveat emptor environment.

A.R. “Trey” Hodgkins III, senior vice president of national security and procurement policy at TechAmerica, discussed the importance of trust and how communications can go a long way to improving the entire arena of government contracting

…Building trust is about building relationships, and success can be found in good relationships. When government and industry enter into the kinds of large IT contracts that are the intended beneficiaries of the Office of Management and Budget’s 25-point plan for IT management and acquisition reform, they become partners that are mutually joined in the success or failure of the undertaking…

…The impact of better trust — and the communication and engagement that builds that trust — is a better outcome for the government acquirer, industry and the taxpayer. A perfect example would be a lessening of the use of bid protests. Industry frequently feels that the lack of communications in the lead-up to an RFP, in the competition phase or after an award leaves them little choice but to file a bid protest in order to get information about the government’s decision…

This is one focal point of the Better Government IT project that I co-chair with ACT-IAC. Communication is the cornerstone of any successful relationship, and government contracting is no different. Building a strategic partnership with the contractor is ultimately what should be established to ensure mutual success by the government. However, the government wrongly assumes ethics and integrity issues where they do not exist. How exactly can a program be successful if communication and information is not exchanged properly? Making the contractor submit yet another report is not the answer. Creating an environment where government and industry can discuss issues openly and honestly is part of the solution.

James Bryan, vice president of technology solutions at the Center for Organizational Excellence, discussed the use of pilot projects and the need for prototypes in large-scale technology efforts.

…Most agencies realize that the day of major technology implementations that produce a “big bang” outcome after a prolonged development cycle are coming to a close. But that doesn’t mean the need for agency-transforming technology disappears. In order to meet the need for change and increase the likelihood of successful IT implementations, agencies should consider pilot implementations, combined with agile development methodologies, whenever possible.

With pilot projects, agencies have an opportunity to test or prototype a solution on a small scale in order to validate the requirements and expected outcomes prior to making a large investment. Pilots are designed to be small but focused efforts to test the potential effectiveness of a solution. They also afford the agency an opportunity to gather lessons learned and later apply them to the large-scale implementation. In most pilot projects, the project owners and the project teams come to the realization that some of the requirements established at the outset need to be modified in order to produce an IT solution that will actually meet their needs…

A pilot is a great way to test capabilities on a smaller scale to ensure a properly defined scope, and to have better grasp on outcomes and metrics to achieve success. These capabilities can then be expanded for further expand requirements and continue success through lessons learned and continuous learning. However, it is imperative that pilots be treated as projects, which means they have clear objectives and end-points. Too many pilots or prototypes simply continue in perpetuity, which not only defeats the purpose but creates the “big-bang” and does not allow for any learning. Further, not all projects should be made into pilots. Just like requirements should not be forced into a certain contract type, not all projects are pilot candidates. Value must be carefully weighed against the chances of success, the ability to develop through agile means and lessons learned, and total value and risk.

Kathleen Turco, associate administrator of government-wide policy at the General Services Administration, discusses one of the most difficult issues facing government management; change management.

…We must begin with the end in mind: What do you want to change? The change management effort should focus on the employee requirements and not just the technology if we are to successfully transition our work processes, procedures and behaviors to adapt to new technology...

...The most significant obstacle is that our nature is to avoid change rather than embrace change. Senior managers must be aligned across the organization to ensure that all are in lockstep on change management and employee training. Otherwise, the transition is doomed from the beginning…

As Ms. Turco mentioned, training is a key component to change and requires that the organization fully understand and make resources available. Regretfully, training is one of the first things that get cut during fiscal belt-tightening, which is unfortunate as having empowered, knowledgeable, and trained employees can have major impacts on success through new technology or process implementation.

These issues are of even greater importance now that one of the chief architects of IT acquisition reform, Vivek Kundra, has resigned. Only through continuing the momentum that Kudra helped spearhead, along with a continued focus on government/industry collaboration, can improvements be achieved. The adversarial nature of the relationship needs to be rethought, as only through working together can taxpayers get better results.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

How to Improve Government/Industry Communications in Acquisition?

I was on Federal News Radio and In Depth with Francis Rose to discuss the Better Government IT initiative and the work the group is doing to improve the acquistion process and create best practices for government/industry communications. Some thoughts for consideration:

  • What are some ways we can improve the process?
  • What are some areas you see that are difficult, either from industry's side, or from government's?
  • What feedback can we give to both buyers and sellers to improve communications during the acquisition process?
  • What are some areas the Better Government IT initiative should focus on?
  • What communications best practices would you propose?
  • What communications practices should be adopted during contract management?
  • What Web 2.0 tools can be implemented in this process?
  • What program management tools would help increase communications?

Please join the discussion!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Call For Volunteers for Better Government IT Working Group - Due April 22

On December 9, 2010 the U.S. Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra released a "25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management." Many of the points in this plan are consistent with recommendations previously made by ACT-IAC. One of these recommendations, and a major priority in the Administration’s plan, is to improve communications between government and industry throughout the IT acquisition process.

Item 24 of the OMB plan directs the OMB Office of Federal Procurement Policy to launch a "myth-busters" education campaign to identify common misconceptions or myths about vendor engagement and improve overall communication between government and industry. Item 25 of the OMB plan directs GSA to launch an interactive platform for pre-RFP agency and industry collaboration.

ACT-IAC is working closely with OMB and GSA on both of these items to provide advice regarding a strategy for improving government-industry communication and collaboration. To date, we have hosted a national dialogue on Item 24 and sponsored industry focus groups on implementation of Item 25.

Overview of the Project

The Better Government IT project is expected to be an ongoing activity to improve government-industry communication and collaboration in the IT acquisition process. The working group will initially focus on working with the Administration to implement items 24 and 25 of the OMB plan. Other issues will be addressed where appropriate. The initial product to be produced by the working group will be a center of excellence on the ACT-IAC web site regarding government-industry communication. It is expected that this center will include:
  • The myths identified by OMB (and truths) plus additional myths as added.
  • Guidance for agencies and industry on what is allowed and not allowed regarding communication during different phases of the acquisition process.
  • Best practices and examples of good communication techniques.
  • Relevant policy documents and guidance from OMB and the agencies
  • An FAQ section that provides answers to the most often asked questions.
  • (Optional) A collaborative capability so that members of the government IT community can exchange ideas and information on this important topic.

Working Group

The working group will have an industry chair and a government chair. Jaime Gracia, President and CEO of Seville Government Consulting, will be the industry chair. A government chair is also being sought. The working group will have both government and industry members. The initial term of the working group shall be six months. At that time an assessment will be made regarding next steps.

Nominations are now being accepted for the Working Group. Individuals interested in participating in the working group should submit their name, email address, a bio of no more than 75 words as well as a brief explanation of why they are interested in joining the working group. This information should be sent to bettergovernmentIT@actgov.org no later than COB April 22, 2011. For the complete nomination information, please click here.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Providing the Blueprints for Improved Government and Industry Communications in the Acquisition Process

As part of Federal Chief Information Officer (CIO) Vivek Kundra’s 25 point plan to improve the management of Federal IT resources, a vital component in need of attention is the poor state of communications between government and industry.

Although this fact was highlighted in Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFFP) Administrator Dan Gordon’s Mythbusters memo of February 2, 2011, this process is one of changing culture. This culture has two facets; an extremely risk-averse federal culture where the fear of liability is almost debilitating and prevents any meaningful industry input, and a culture from industry where enormous investments in status quo have created competitive advantage, coupled with the fear of disclosure and transparency.

Nonetheless, both sides agree that middle ground can be achieved to improve the ways each side communicates with one another, with ultimate outcomes that vital feedback from industry is given to the government on resource management, requirements development, and knowledge transfer on technology that clearly lies, and belongs, with industry. In conjunction with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the industry group American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) hosted an online, moderated exchange of ideas to engage the government IT community to gather feedback and improve communications between government and industry. To host this dialogue, ACT-IAC created a dedicated website at www.bettergovernmentit.org with links from both the CIO Council and the ACT-IAC websites, respectively.

Ben Coit, chair of the Acquisition Management Shared Interest Group at ACT-IAC, and Tom Suder, the ACT-IAC lead for the Mythbusters dialogue effort, discussed the initiative on the DorobekINSIDER show earlier this month.

"The overall goal is to develop actual recommendations so the government can be more effective in their mission by improving the quality of proposals that come in through effective communications," Coit said. "The government's mission is going to be better served by industry."

To that end, feedback was received until February 28th, and asked users to focus on four different categories to post a myth:

1. Please identify "myths" that government acquisition professionals may hold that inhibit their ability to communicate with industry during the IT acquisition process.
2. Identify "myths" that industry may hold that inhibit their ability to communicate with the government during the IT acquisition process.
3. What are major impediments to improving government and industry's ability to communicate with each other? If you identify rules or regulations, please be as specific as possible.
4. Provide examples of Federal IT acquisitions that included good communication practices - by either government or industry - that resulted in better outcomes and better decisions. Explain what the practice or process was and why it was valuable.

This past week, ACT-IAC submitted a white paper to OMB, which summarizes some of the input from this information gathering initiative and provides some thoughts on next steps. As the dialogue with OMB and ACT-IAC continues, more will posted on this initiative, along with recommended action items for execution.

Although much work needs to be done to improve communications, only by breaking down barriers, which are normally created artificially, can improvements in outcomes be realized. I hope these initiative results is a robust forum for helping structure a new paradigm where industry input is actively sought and given in return, to the betterment of acquisition initiatives and the taxpayer.

Mr. Gracia is an active member of ACT-IAC and the Acquisition Shared Interest Group or SIG. He is providing leadership in the BetterGovernmentIT initiative and the BetterBuyProject as it moves forward with OMB in helping shape the dialogue between industry and government, and as it relates to points 24 and 25 of the Kundra memo.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Let Sellers Talk to Buyers Early in Procurement

This piece was originally published for Bloomberg Government on 03/11/2011.

The Obama White House announced plans in December to transform the way federal information technology projects are managed and executed. Its 25-point implementation instructions to federal agencies include many good ideas, from the adoption of light technologies and shared services to aligning the budget and acquisition process with the technology cycle.

The 24th and 25th points go to something deeper -- and actually transformative -- in the way government IT projects operate: increased engagement with private industry. They suggest new opportunities to develop relationships among industry experts and key procurement personnel that are currently closed or difficult to create.

This is the gaping hole in the government procurement process. For understandable but increasingly obsolescent reasons, government acquisition officials create artificial barriers and prevent themselves from working as closely as they could with industry experts in the earliest stages of the acquisition process.

While the Federal Acquisition Regulation encourages such exchanges, the perception of improper influence and unethical behavior, coupled with the risk-adverse nature of government in general, often prevents meaningful communications from occurring.

The results are poor requirements development and the unintended consequences of waste, fraud and abuse that are rampant in many programs across the government.

Identify Needs

The requirements phase identifies the needs and scope of a project and thus becomes its blueprint. By having more meaningful discussion with stakeholders, specifically industry stakeholders, proper requirements and can be developed, increasing the opportunities for governance and oversight.

When both government and contractors can focus on execution of common goals and objectives, based on designed metrics developed early in the program, they lessen the chances of costly change orders and foster better outcomes.

Regretfully, in the current system, stakeholders in industry are an afterthought, and industry experts have little bearing on helping program managers and acquisition officers develop sound requirements to ensure goals are realistic and achievable.

Best practices on how industry develops requirements are what the government desperately needs. By focusing on the earlier phases of an acquisition, which is to focus as far left as possible in the needs-identification phase of an agency’s acquisition lifecycle, user requirements are matched with customer needs and available resources, and products can be designed within cost, schedule and performance goals.

Social Media Tools

So how can legitimate ethics concerns be accommodated while still making room for the obvious benefits of government-industry communications?

Here's where social media technology now provides new tools to facilitate communication and maintain proper arms-length relationships.

Recently, the government launched several online wiki tools to explore collaboration between government and industry in an open-dialogue platform. Thousands of visitors participated from all 50 states. They included Fortune 500 company experts interacting in an environment where they suggested best practices and cutting-edge solutions to identified needs.

The results were an encouraging start of the future of these exchanges. The feedback was "both more comprehensive and more actionable than what could have been obtained through traditional methods," wrote Vivek Kundra, the government's chief information officer and author of the 25-point plan.

In fact, crowd sourcing and stakeholder analysis are commonly used by commercial entities in these knowledge-based environments. Many companies use a structured product-development process to ensure that a high level of knowledge exists about a product at key junctures during its development, similar to milestones or phased entry-points used by the Defense Department.

It's this knowledge-based process that helps enable decision makers to be reasonably confident about product quality, reliability and timeliness.

Through these interactive platforms, key decision makers, such as program managers, can develop the information they need, particularly in the period before issuing a request for proposal, or RFP, when they need more effective ways to perform market research.

The current acquisition process for market research uses a request for information, or RFI. Just like the stages following an RFP, and RFI requires a significant investment in business development dollars for a prospective bidder to build the relationships necessary to be on the government buyer’s radar.

As both industry and government realize the value of early interaction, both business development expenditures and procurement lead times can be drastically reduced. The new interactive platform will allow government to get more focused and value-added input from industry, improve awareness of cutting-edge technologies and allow for increased opportunities for innovation, competition and flexibility in contract development.

The platform, being built by the General Services Administration, is scheduled for beta-testing and initial operating capability by Memorial Day. I hope that industry contractors continue to keep track of this development, if only to increase their own performance along with that of government’s.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Past Performance Accountability Should Not be Punishment

The Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan met recently to raise concerns that large defense contractors are getting a pass on fraud and poor performance. However, some on the Commission seem to think that solutions should not be bilateral, or even going so far as to seemingly having a "Save me from myself" mentality.

The focus of the testimony was the effectiveness of the government’s current methods for assessing oversight and surveillance of the current $200 billion that has been spent on contracts and grants since 2002 to support military, reconstruction, and other U.S. operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Commission, the United States has wasted tens of billions of dollars of contract dollars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but of course the blame game is always the first line of defense for failing to get at the root cause of not only the failures of oversight in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in how the government evaluates performance overall.

Laying the blame squarely on industry, Commissioner Charles Tiefer called five large companies that do business with the Defense, among them KBR, the "Flagrant Five" for continuing to receive work despite claims of fraud, misconduct and poor performance.

.…"I'm beginning to get the picture that bad performance could be good business," Tiefer said at a commission hearing Monday…

Also joining in on bashing industry was The Project on Government Oversight's general counsel Scott Amey.

…Companies involved in misconduct are a "necessary evil" required to get work done. "This might be the contracting version of ‘too big to fail,'" he said…

Amey also went on to state that the Air Force issued multiple waivers in order to continue business with firms accused of wrongdoing, in addition to the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee not issuing the annual reports required to document federal agencies' suspension and debarment activities.

These activities bring up an interesting issue about why the government is not doing its job in providing the proper level of oversight, surveillance, and past performance reporting. Lack of time? Not wanting to correct a problem and "slow down" the process? Really?

Most of the testimony focused around the report issued a week before about the vital need for contingency contracting reform, with a particular focus on debarments and suspensions as seemingly a punitive weapon and silver bullet against contractors. Although the report discusses the failures of government, clearly malfeasance also seemed to be the root cause of waste.

...."For many years the government has abdicated its contracting responsibilities -- too often using contractors as the default mechanism, driven by considerations other than whether they provide the best solution, and without consideration for the resources needed to manage them," the commission concluded. "That is how contractors have come to account for fully half the United States presence in contingency operations."...

Not all the voices on the panels were one-sided. Dan Gordon, Administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, discussed in his testimony the facts about debarments and suspension.

...The regular evaluation of contractor performance and the use of those evaluations in decisions for future awards motivate contractors to perform well, and help ensure that we avoid doing repeat business with firms that don’t perform well. Suspending or debarring entities can help to protect taxpayers from the abuse of contractors who have been convicted of fraud or other criminal or civil offenses indicating a lack of business honesty or integrity, or who otherwise behave unethically, or engage in poor performance of government-funded work. The system works, however, only if we are willing and able to suspend or debar entities when we shouldn’t be doing business with them, and if all agencies check to be sure they are not awarding a contract to an entity that has been suspended or debarred...

Past performance data collection is the actual root cause of many of these issues. Past performance completion rates are not only low, but the reports are not being entered into the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS) database. So accountability needs to be the first step in this reform analysis, by ensuring the information about wrong doing is available to government. However, the understanding of what and how suspensions and debarments are supposed to be used is currently a major issue that seemingly is lost on the Commission.

... Among 32 recommendations made in a report released last week, commissioners want agencies to:

• Give a written rationale for not pursuing a proposed suspension or debarment.
• Increase use of suspensions and debarments.
• Revise regulations to lower procedural barriers to contingency suspensions and debarments...

These activities are not supposed to be punitive, but that is exactly what the commission seems to be implying. The report itself lists almost double the number of activities targeted to punishment, vice creating solutions to prevent the fraud, waste, and abuse from happening in the first place.

I am not implying that some companies have not acted in the best interest of the taxpayer. Fraud, waste, and abuse has definitely occurred, and regretfully has been a part of war profiteering that goes back to the founding of the nation. However, advocating the use of debarments and suspensions as a punitive weapon will not solve the problem. I hope the Commission realizes that treating the symptoms and not the disease is simply a recipe for failure, and will be further adding to the waste it has been formed to help prevent.