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?