Monday, February 21, 2011

Myth Busters Campaign in Full Swing to Improve Public/Private Sector Communications

As part of an effort to reform the federal acquisition process for technology, US Federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, unveiled an ambitious 25-point plan for addressing many of the issues that plague the way the government purchases technology in hopes of delivering more value to the taxpayer. Part of the implementation plan was to counter the misunderstandings about how industry and government can engage with one another during the acquisition process, specifically by government. Because of the artificial barriers between government agencies and their industry partners, rampant waste and program delays have become the norm that erode the value of these IT investments.

To combat the status quo, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has launched a “myth-busters” campaign to educate government, and eliminate public sector barriers to communication and enhance awareness of the most efficient and effective technologies available in the private sector. Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFFP) Administrator, Dan Gordon, outlined in his Feb. 2nd memo the planned outcome of this campaign, which is to remove communication barriers and improve the overall acquisition process that includes specific initiatives on needs identification, requirements definition, acquisition strategy formulation, market research, the proposal process, and contract execution.

I have been writing about the need for improved communication as a central theme of acquisition reform for some time (here, here, and here), so I am glad this formalized implementation plan has taken shape. What I am also glad to see is that the communication plan is not only a public sector initiative, but is also being done with industry.

Leading this effort is the industry group the American Council for Technology (ACT) - Industry Advisory Council (IAC), which has launched an online forum called, to collect feedback that will later be reviewed by OMB, the Chief Information Officers Council and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council, according to ACT-IAC. This site, which is styled after the General Services Administration's BetterBuyProject, uses crowd-sourcing techniques for contracting professionals to identify common myths about vendor engagement and information that will help improve public/private communication. One important option included is to engage anonymously, which will hopefully encourage dialogue without the fear of retribution by government officials or providing other firms competitive information.

These encouraging efforts can only help improve what is a truly becoming a broken system where communication barriers are getting more and more entrenched. What can truly improve the overall process is having open communications with industry as early in the process as possible. These early communications, in the need identification stage, can greatly improve the requirements development process, which I believe to be a truly broken process. These early exchanges can vastly improve the chances of good acquisition outcomes, which includes reduced costs, improved performance, innovative solutions, increased competition, and with proper oversight, improved overall government management.

These public/private efforts have the ability to produce desired effect, but only if these efforts are coordinated. OMB, OFPP, and ACT-IAC need to ensure data and feedback from their respective efforts are all shared amongst each other, which includes sharing lessons learned, and transfer knowledge. It would be a shame if effort to improve communication were conducted in the same, stove-piped echo chamber they are being conducted now. As these initiatives move forward, the increased communications can only help shape the future of acquisitions to the benefit of the taxpayer.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Communications Are Vital to Improving Acquisitions

Two opposing views have emerged this week regarding communications with industry. According to Sen McCaskill (D-MO), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, the current relationship has apparently clouded the judgment of contracting officials to the point where objectivity has been compromised in contract award decisions.

During a recent hearing on how federal agencies use contract audits to detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in government contracts, McCaskill conceded the relationship is too close, and expressed a bias toward auditors.

“Contracting officers have an ongoing relationship with the contractors that sometimes impact their ability to see everything clearly as it relates to some of the behavior of the contractors,” said McCaskill.

As much as I respect and admire Sen. McCaskill's efforts to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse in federal contracting, I could not disagree more with her premise. Firstly, Contracting Officers and industry should have a strategic partnership, as both parties are trying to execute the same goals and objectives. Of course government and industry have different means to achieve these goals, but it is through understanding each other and open communication that both parties will be successful. Communication between industry and government continues to be challenging, and advancing the agenda of building barriers and confrontation that Sen. McCaskill seems to be advocating will further exacerbate this issue.

Further, it is Contracting Officers that are given the authority to negotiate and enter into contracts on behalf of the government, not auditors. Financial analysts and Contracting Officers need to work together, in conjunction with industry, to get the best deal for the taxpayer and ensure all parties are setup for success. Adversarial relationships are neither objective nor productive, they just create friction and missed opportunities for successful outcomes.

Opposing this view has been Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP). Gordon launched a "myth-busting" campaign to help government officials understand that the fear of talking to industry is overblown, and that talking to industry is vital to increasing competition and to ensuring best value for the taxpayer.

“We need to be independent, but more communication can increase our independence,” he said. “In fact, more communication can overcome the tie between the contracting staff and a particular vendor.”

By opening discussions, agency officials can learn what other companies can offer them, Gordon said. However, agency officials feel like they don’t know enough about other companies due to limited interaction with industry. Too often, agencies have one contractor they have dealt with, and they will continue to work with that company, even preferring it over others.

“More communication, especially with competing vendors, may be the best oxygen to remedy that situation,” Gordon said.

Market research is prescribed in Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 10. Yet, the environment is such that the Administrator of OFPP is on a myth-busting campaign that following the FAR is a good thing and needed?

There is no question that improved communications are essential to ensure requirements are sound, that contract types are appropriate, and that metrics are effective. I have written about this topic, and I hope Gordon’s myth-busting campaign will help melt the ice of the current environment. However, much more is needed. Mainly, acquisition officials need to have guidance and oversight to ensure that the acquisition workforce is not beaten over the head while trying to communicate with industry. Officials must give the acquisition workforce the confidence and ability to perform these crucial pre-acquisition tasks without fear of retribution. It is this risk-averse environment that is one of the main issues with communication barriers, so focusing on this impediment should help see improvements in the quality and quantity of communications with industry.

The National Contract Management Association recently issued an open letter on this subject entitled An Open Letter Addressing the Need for Cooperation between Government and Industry. It is call to action to understand that government and industry both share a common goal, and that is serving the public.

Once this common goal is understood, then progress can be made in developing new channels to communicate, and see improvements in how the government buys and realize the cost-savings that are desperately needed in federal acquisition. I hope that Sen. McCaskill realizes that she is actually making a difficult situation harder, and that she and others needed to collaborate with Mr. Gordon and industry to achieve this common goal.