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 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.