Saturday, December 14, 2013

Reverse Auctions: Where Are The Cost Savings?

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Photo by
Reverse auctions are back in the news this week, highlighted by a Government Accountability (GAO) report critical of the process, and by the Small Business Committee’s Contracting and Workforce Subcommittee, which held a joint hearing with the Veterans’ Affairs Committee’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee earlier this week as well.
The title of the hearing, Contracting Away Accountability – Reverse Auctions in Federal Agency Acquisitions, was a good indication of what Congress thought of the procurement tool.
Firstly, I think reverse auctions are a great tool to save money, increase competition (especially for small businesses), and speed up procurement times. However, there is one caveat: when used appropriately.
I have written about this issue in the past (click here), and the GAO report started the salvo of calling into the question the use of reverse auctions through disturbing findings at the center of testimony provided by Michelle Mackin, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management at the GAO
…Competition and savings-two of the key benefits of reverse auctions cited by the agencies we reviewed-are not always being maximized… because not all reverse auctions involve what we refer to as interactive bidding, where vendors engage in multiple rounds of bids against each other to drive prices lower. We found that over a third of the fiscal year 2012 reverse auctions had no interactive bidding-and agencies paid $3.9 million in fees for these auctions…
Further disturbing news in the report and testimony from Mackin was that many federal users did not understand that fees were associated with the reverse auction platform, most notably through the use of FedBid, a Vienna, Va.-based company that offers the most popular tool. FedBid charges a fee of 3 percent of the winning contract, not to exceed $10,000. However, FedBid can, and sometimes does, offer discounts on those fees.
…”We were, frankly, a bit surprised to learn that agencies didn’t know how much they were paying FedBid in fees. They didn’t know how much duplicative fees–for lack of a better word–they were paying when they were using a schedule contract, for example, for a reverse auction,” said Mackin…
Some agencies, such as the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), are now trying to capture and track fee data, but it remains an illusive goal. VA had halted the use of reverse auctions last year, as according to Jan Frye, deputy assistant secretary at VA’s Office of Acquisition and Logistics, who said in a keynote at the April 26 Coalition for Government Procurement 2012 Spring Conference:
…“I’m not against reverse auctions, but I’m concerned that sometimes we don’t know what we’re doing when we set about to do reverse auctions”…
Apparently the doubt remains, as the VA has once again halted the use of reverse auctions this week, further pointing to issues on the use of this technique at the VA, and especially when it comes to construction contracts.
Also disturbing in the testimony from GAO was that more than one-third of auctions reviewed by the GAO in their report had only one bidder, and over half of auctions were used to procure items from pre-existing contracts.
…There’s a notion, said Mackin, that reverse auctions result in the lowest price. But at times the final price exceeded the government estimate and agencies may have been able to get a better price through other mechanisms…
GAO auditors also found issue with FedBid’s savings calculation across the four agencies GAO analyzed, which according to Mackin, was an estimated $98 million in 2012.
…”We have questions about the accuracy of these savings. For example, if there was no interactive bidding, agencies perhaps could have gotten a better price using other mechanisms,” she said. “Also, the target price or government estimate may not be sound. For example, we found over 1,000 cases where the winning bid actually exceeded the government’s estimate even with interactive bidding.”…
Some of the most insightful testimony came from construction firms, who denounced the use of reverse auctions. Nigel Cary, president of Cox Construction Co., discussed the negative effects of using reverse auctions  for complex construction projects, and further stated agencies are hindering competition on specific contracts due to issues with unrealistic requirements for unrealistic prices.
“Reverse auctions ignore best value,” he said. “It’s unfortunate and misguided that each agency learns the lesson on their own.”
Not to be outdone was Louis Celli Jr., director of the legislative division of the American Legion, who shared the message with the Committee on how his members feels about reverse auctions, as he stated that his members believe reverse auctions “unfair, deceptive and fraught with cheating.”
What is the path forward?

It seems that reverse auctions are a “love them or hate them” proposition. The vast majority of small businesses I know who actively use reverse auctions have negative attitudes toward the use of this tool, for the same reasons highlighted in the testimony. The overwhelming feedback is that they are being used for the wrong procurement (e.g. wrong requirements for the wrong price point), and not necessarily think that reverse auctions in and of themselves are a negative procurement method.

What do we do about this issue? Some solutions that were offered at the hearing included increased oversight and training, and passage of H.R. 2157, which prohibits the use of reverse auctions on construction contracts which are specifically suitable for awards to small businesses. Mackin also stated that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) has also agreed that new guidance is needed.
Right Tool
Nonetheless, I think construction contracts are the wrong requirement for reverse auctions, as sealed bidding is a preferred method to ensure best value, and ensure the right vendor, with the right requirements, at the right price.
Further, OFPP guidance, along with oversight, is clearly needed, as reverse auctions seem to be doing more harm than good. 
We’ll see what comes of this, but I hope reverse auctions do not go away entirely, as I am not a fan on taking tools away from the procurement process. We just need to do a better job of using the right tool for the right job.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Will VA certifications of SDVOSB go away? We in the Veteran’s community can only hope so

Photo by ZDNet
Recent contracting missteps, as reported by the Washington Business Journal (WBJ) and Microtech by the Washington Post, seem to have endangered the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) programs for certifying firms as either Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) or Veteran Owned Small Business (VOSB).
Although the current certification process is challenging enough, this recent issue by VA really is inexplicable, and a glaring example of the overall mismanagement of the VA contracting process for a program that supposedly is “critical” for the VA mission:
The Department of Veterans Affairs abruptly ended a three-year contract with an Alexandria company nearly three months earlier than planned, leaving in limbo the crucial task of processing applications from contractors hoping to be verified as veteran-owned small businesses…
To give VA cover, in typical bureaucratic fashion, was Tom Leney, chief of small and veteran business programs at the VA:
…The VA’s head of small and veteran-owned business programs is apologetic about the change, though short on details. He’s also vowing that the agency’s application processing work — which has drawn fire from critics — will continue, and be done efficiently…
…”I recognize the impact that this change has and I am sorry that we have not been able to avoid this situation,” Tom Leney, the VA’s executive director of the small and veteran business programs, wrote in an email to Ardelle employees who support the contract, which was obtained by Washington Business Journal…

Where Do Certifications Go From Here?

What to make of all this? Well, one of the main contractors processing applications, Ardelle Associates, is trying to figure out what do. Ardelle President, Art Forcey, had some interesting ideas as to what is happening:
…”I think it was political. I think delays in getting a new competition started caused infighting about what to do and people took some heat for extending our contract,” he said. “But this wasn’t the right way to go.”…
Was it political? Of course it was. However, one of the principal reasons that I believe caused this misstep was simply a lack of proper acquisition planning. I am sure there was infighting, but this program is a great foundation for “empire building”, as I like to call it, and as further demonstrated by the recent power grab by the VA to take control of SDVOSB eligibility away from the Small Business Administration (SBA).
Nonetheless, we can only hope that these continued issues will allow the VA to get back to its core mission, which should not include certifications of SDVOSBs and VOSBs. In fact, the $40 million being spent on these programs should be diverted to the backlog of claims that are both an embarrassment, and a disservice, to veterans waiting in almost perpetuity for their claims to be processed.

Common Sense Legislation Can Solve This Problem

Recent investigations and legislation into the certification process by both the House Small Business Committee and the House Committee on Veterans’ Affairs will hopefully correct these VA lapses and bring improved efficiency and consistency to the process, currently known for mismanagement and waste.
Further, legislation to this effect can hopefully now move forward. Representative Mike Coffman (R-CO), has introduced or co-sponsored several pieces of legislation to correct these issues, most notably H.R. 2882, “Improving Opportunities for Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Small Business Act of 2013,” which requires VA to relinquish control over the verification of SDVOSBs and VOSBs to the SBA.
I believe this is the way to go, as this exercise in futility is simply not working, and drastic change is needed. There is simply too much overall, redundancy, and a lack of defined methodology and processes that subject the firms seeking verification to subjective terms. Furthermore, the process is needlessly complicated and cumbersome, and lengthy delays and rejections are inevitable in this environment.
Black Friday
Photo by USPS
Although the numbers seemingly are gamed as to the length of time for certification coming out of the Center for Veterans Enterprise at 27 days, a line longer than Black Friday lines at Best Buy can be formed of firms that can refute this ridiculous statistic of the time and documentation required for certification.
I hope this legislation moves forward, as it makes sense. The SBA already has the processes, infrastructure, and experience in place to certify firms for socioeconomic certifications and eligibility. That is what they should be doing. It is a matter of sticking to your strengths, and certifications should not be part of the VA mission any longer.
Contact your Congressional representative, and get them on board with H.R. 2882. You can do this directly from
Don’t our veterans deserve better?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

How Will Not Drive Federal IT Acquisition Reform

Photo by ActiveRain
After weeks of reports about the debacle known as (here and here), the latest news and actions around preventing the next IT boondoggle are now headed in the direction of reforming IT acquisition.

Although President Obama got in on the action, I do not expect any significant reforms to take place, until the root cause of the problems are addressed. Further, “fixing” IT acquisition is not a silver-bullet endeavor, but as the Professional Service Council highlights in their latest report, there are some fundamental approaches to improving the current situation that do not require any new legislation or further regulations (thankfully).

Nonetheless, if real IT acquisition reform is to be realized, the answer is to dig deep and not focus on outlying issues. Not an easy proposition.

Fixing IT Acquisition: Strip It Down to the Bolts

Just weeks before the failed launch of, I was having an interesting and enlightening debate with Clay Johnson on LinkedIn regarding innovation and RFP-EZ. Clay is CEO at The Department of Better Technology and one of the original Presidential Innovation Fellows of the RFP-EZ project.

He and I were debating about the need for IT innovation and its definition, in addition to creating software and technologies that provide rapid capability at a fraction of what most IT projects cost. That is to say, it is possible to create and deliver technologies and capabilities that meet end-user expectations for functionality without breaking the bank or requiring being hauled before Congress.

My main concern regarding RFP-EZ is that this technology already exists; mainly through Federal Business Opportunities or Wasn’t RFP-EZ a redundant technology? Shouldn’t we be more focused on fixing the real IT acquisition issues, like the workforce?

No question infrastructure, human capital, and execution are major problems, but after seeing rolled out, and Clay’s remark about the possibilities that exist to solve the issues of IT in the federal space, I believe his vision to reform how government purchases technology is what can lead to real change.

“Big Bang” Means “Big Bucks”, With Little To Show For The Investment

One of the biggest issues I see is simply culture, as government is fully entrenched in purchasing large programs with thousands of disparate requirements and no clear vision of what capabilities are desired. Combined with an aversion to change how business is conducted, and further exacerbated by strong business (e.g. lobbyists) interests that prefer the status quo, this will be one of the hardest issues to combat.

Recent federal leadership comments, I believe, illustrate this point. Comments by former Department of Homeland Security CIO Richard Spires and former acting administrator at the General Services Administration, Jim Williams, illustrate this problem. Although their recommendations are very useful and helpful, one has to wonder about the level of success of IT programs at their respective agencies when they held their respective positions. Furthermore, they both effectively state “Next time we undergo another large program like, we need to do better.”

To realize real change, we need to put the brakes on this “Big Bang” approach to purchasing IT and ensure return on investment is at the forefront of future technology acquisitions.

Photo by BCW, UK
Innovation Can Not Happen With “Big Bang”

Everyone talks about how there is ample competition in the federal acquisition marketplace, and how regulations promote this competition. If you really believe this, I have a bridge to sell you.

There is a reason that such a vast majority of federal business is won by a small number of firms, and this entrenched environment is part of the “IT Cartel” that former Federal CIO Vivek Kundra discussed. Although this moniker was regrettable, and pounced on by large government contractors and the media, his analysis was very accurate.

Although his “25 Point Implementation Plan To Reform Federal Information Technology Management” laid the groundwork for real transformation, I would argue that little has been done to fully execute these initiatives, outside of cloud computing and data center consolidation.

Until government understands that huge multi-million dollar IT programs simply are a continued recipe for waste and little innovation, we will continue to build more projects like

What Does Real Change Look Like?

For starters, Requests for Proposals (RFPs) that are hundreds of pages of requirements, that no one understands (especially with requirements that are TBD), go away. After 30+ RFP amendments and months, if not years to award the final contract where the technology requirements are now obsolete at contract award, who thinks this is a good idea anymore?

Further, getting more small businesses in the federal technology space is what will drive more innovation in technology, and improve the level of technological capability that IT projects deliver. As opposed to the business model of requiring large businesses to run these massive legacy systems at enormous expense that total billions every year, smaller firms are simply closer to cutting edge, ground-breaking technological capability that is required to change the paradigm, and improve the level of services the federal government delivers.

All at a fraction of the cost, I might add.

The requirement for Open Systems Architecture would also go a long way to improving capability, since the current environment is to purchase “Commercial-of-the-Shelf” technologies, then spend hundreds of millions of dollars to customize the software for government use that ultimately creates proprietary software, and a nightmare for data rights and licensing fees. This only encourages less competition, since usually only the incumbent (a large business) has the resources to manage these enormous undertakings, or compete on them for that matter. Security issues, for the most part, are also nothing more than a red herring at this point.

Of course, holding those accountable for failure is also woefully lacking in the federal environment. Only in the federal government can you manage a program that wastes millions of dollars, only to have it fail, and possibly canceled, and the only response seems to be a shoulder shrug.

Risk taking and bad management are two separate things, and the former is what needs to be encouraged. Combined with using more Agile development techniques, and a renewed focus on workforce capabilities and not just box-checking certification requirements, are further areas of improving the status quo.

We do not need the next to drive change. I think we taxpayers have had enough.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Mythbusting in Action – Communications and Their Value

The July 2013 edition of Contract Management magazine, published by the National Contract Management Association (NCMA), included an encouraging article on how communications between government and industry not only can improve outcomes and business relationships, but also show positive results to improve requirements and the opportunities for better outcomes overall.

The article, “MythBusting – Communications with Industry,” (subscription required through NCMA membership), written by Jeffrey D. Claar, a senior procurement analyst with the Program Executive Office for Simulation, Training and Instrumentation (PEO STRI), describes the successes at the establishment of monthly PEO STRI Acquisition Center Procurement Administrative Lead Time (PALT) Industry Days.

These monthly forums demonstrate the way procurement offices are changing the dynamic of what most “normal” Industry Days entail, which are time-consuming ways for government to advertise requirements that most commercial professional business development types know better than government personnel at the front of the room. Further, rarely are productive question asked, as industry attendance is normally for scouting competition or finding potential teaming partners.

However, living the spirit of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy's MythBusters is principal assistant responsible for contracting (PARC), Joseph A. Giunta, Jr., who stated these forums are “a means of providing ground truth and situational awareness of PEO STRI’s Acquisition Center procurement process and ongoing procurements.”

The article goes on to talk about the value of the program, and how communications have helped foster a collaborative environment.

…Since August 2011, PEO STRI PALT Industry Days have grown exponentially, serving the contracting community, requiring activities, and industry partners alike. The monthly PALT Industry Day venue provides industry representatives with the status of PEO STRI programs, ongoing procurements, and the distinct opportunity to request updates on specific procurements of interest in a Q&A-type forum. These types of venues have indeed enhanced communication and have enabled PEO STRI to respond faster to critical, emerging requirements with innovative acquisition and technology solutions, thereby putting the power of simulation into the hands of our nation’s warfighters.

Recently, as a result of sequestration, PEO STRI’s monthly PALT Industry Days have swelled to more than 220 industry representatives and taken on a “standing room only” reputation. As a result of this overwhelming desire by industry, alternative overflow seating and viewing capacity have been predicated…

Further, the exchanges have been helpful and productive for both parties, which one would expect when open and honest transparency, combined with a spirit of collaboration are created, to develop better requirements and provide actionable information for industry consumption:

…At its core, the PALT Industry Day sessions are driven by industry’s questions and not a fixed government agenda. Industry attendees routinely ask questions to a senior PEO STRI panel—consisting of the PARC, deputy PARC, division chiefs, program managers, and legal representation, as well as the Small Business Program Office and a host of contracting officers—about contract types and PALT milestones associated with a specific procurement. This has enabled industry representatives to better allocate resources and facilitate their investment decisions.

In this unscripted setting, industry partners have been more open and comfortable with sharing information, and in turn, as Giunta noted, “Better information is obtained for the acquisition community and for industry partners to support their pre/post-award activities.” Giunta went on to state, “While the sessions are in essence driven by industry, we do have the ability to push information to industry, leading to an educated partner.”…

As the sequestration vice tightens, it is even more important than ever for industry and government to share vital information on how missions will be supported with even more limited resources and contract opportunities.

It is encouraging to see procurement shops proactively improving their relations with industry through communications, and we can expect better outcomes as a result.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Institutionalizing MythBusters: The Need for Better Industry and Government Collaboration

Last week, the American Council for Technology and Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC) conducted their inaugural 2013 Mythbusting Awards to three Federal agencies for their work in improving vendor communications in the acquisition process. The program also contained a forum on Mythbusting, in addition to breakout sessions on various MythBusters issues related to the previous memos and survey results released by ACT-IAC. Lastly, the program recognized the agencies (Department of Homeland Security or DHS, The National Reconnaissance Office, The Department of State) making improvements in the way they interact with collaboration, and to share those results and best practices with the group.
Having attended the event, I think any opportunity to acknowledge and discuss the value of industry and government collaboration is an important step in improving acquisition outcomes. Like most ACT-IAC events, it was well done and productive.
I discussed this event with an acquisition official that did not attend, but more importantly, did not think this event or initiative had any merit. His belief was that government officials should not be rewarded simply for doing their jobs, and industry should not be granting awards acknowledging what they should be doing in the first place.
He makes a valid and interesting argument, no doubt. However, it is too easy to dismiss recognizing those that are making a positive impact on government management.
In fact, these types of awards should be handed out with more frequency, as the knowledge transfer would be invaluable to reverse the trend of the closed-door policies that seem firmly entrenched in regards to government and industry relations.
In these fiscally austere times, communications between industry and government are vitally important to develop affordable programs, and to ensure that requirements for programs are done in an environment of realism.
I am not talking about what passes for market research these days, which is the government issuing a Request for Information, and then that is it. In the award citation by ACT-IAC, DHS was cited for creating initiatives to lower barriers to effective communication:
The Department of Homeland Security emphasizes quality government-industry communication as part of its strategic plan and its new vendor communication framework.  DHS created an industry liaison council and a small business council to increase the effectiveness of its dialogue with industry. DHS has rolled out industry- led seminars to educate the acquisition workforce on private sector business processes, and appointed two personnel as centralized resources for vendors seeking information about DHS acquisitions. DHS has also developed seven industry-government communication metrics to measure its success.
It is about, as Office of Federal Procurement Policy Deputy Administrator Lesley Field noted, "institutionalizing Mythbusting." That is to say, creating a culture where effective industry and government relations, communications, and collaboration are the norm and not the exception.
Further, we are in a desperate need of shifting the culture of risk aversion and lack of accountability, combined with an understanding of the value that effective communications with industry bring to the table.
It is a fact that better relationships between government and industry create more value to the taxpayer, through improved outcomes, and less fraud, waste, and abuse. Now is not the time to shut doors, but to open them, so that government can communicate what it can afford, and industry can communicate what value it can provide at the affordability targets. Will revisions in requirements be necessary? What about adjusting expectations?
No question. However, how do we do that if we are not talking to each other?
Industry is not the enemy. There is no silver bullet here, but we must continue providing the opportunities and tools to the acquisition workforce on how to conduct market research, and the value it brings.
“There is no time” is not a valid excuse. There seems to be endless amounts of time to correct mistakes, but never enough time to prevent them for occurring in the first place. Acquisition planning and forecasting is a strategic initiative that must be made a priority with leadership, and not be treated as a paper-pushing exercise.
Until then, let’s keep presenting these awards.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Better Buying Power v2.0, Mission Impossible at Defense?

According to recent guidance from Frank Kendall, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, the initial round of Better Buying Power did not go well due to acquisition workforce personnel “creating” mandates from guidance on improving performance.
One of the biggest areas of “confusion” from the original guidance was the preference for more fixed-price contracts. However, that guidance turned into a mandate to create fixed-price contracts period, regardless of requirements or risk. The outcomes are obvious in waste and mismanagement, and will continue for years to come.
Combined with the “mandate” for low-cost, even with “best value” awards where awardees are seemingly stripped of winning bids to create a low-cost solution, there is a culture currently at the Pentagon where contract awards, and contract management itself, is in a state of disrepair.
This latest round of guidance includes a long list of items to tackle, but according to Kendall, “thinking” is the most critical item.
…”There’s a flavor that runs through it that says, ‘Here are the tools you need, and here’s the way you should be thinking about the problems you have to solve. But you have to solve them,’” he said. “You have to be professional and really understand what needs to be done.”…
Kendall further went on to say in a roundtable session with reporters discussing the memo:
…”People have to know the right thing to do, and they have to have a system that supports them in doing it”…
…”The [fixed price incentive fee item] was good guidance, but there’s a tendency in our system to say, ‘OK, that’s what they want us to do, so that’s all we’ll do now because that’s going to get whatever we want to do approved.’ So we’ve modified that. Now it tells people to use the right contract type for the job. That means there’s a burden on our professionals to figure out what that is, but we’ll give them guidance.”…
Incentivizing productivity in the defense sector? We can’t even select the correct contract type. Further, the frustration with the defense contracting process and the workforce has been an increasingly sore spot that is leaving firms behind, especially small businesses, which is decimating the defense industrial base.
Not surprisingly, the focus on Mr. Kendall’s remarks came down to improving the skills of the defense acquisition workforce, in a time where budget cuts continue to eat into opportunities for training and skill-building for those responsible for awarding billions of taxpayer funds.
“We’ve brought a lot of junior people in, and they need to be developed. We’ve got a bathtub in terms of demographics. We have a lot of older people who are going to be retiring, and we need to make sure those people’s knowledge is retained as much as possible as they go out the door. All of the services and components are working on this together.”
Somewhat curious in the memo includes several steps seemingly designed to reduce bureaucracy, although his comments seemingly seem to support the bureaucracy through affirmation of the “Chain of Command”?
People are encouraged to “think,” but nonetheless have to report to a leadership structure that is top-heavy with overhead, processes that are overly cumbersome, especially with IT buys, and Defense Acquisition University programs that need to be rethought to allow the competence and skill-set to match the level of training needed as opposed to the current system of checking of boxes for certification.
Also of note is the desire to make saving money acceptable in the use-it it lose-it mentality, and the desire to open dialogues with industry in a “closed-door” mentality of market research also seems a difficult barrier to overcome.
I fully support Mr. Kendall’s effort to simply defense contracting processes, as there is no question that the maze that is the Defense (DoD) 5000 process is challenging enough, without adding budget cuts, sequestration, and difficulties with the workforce.
An uphill struggle for Mr. Kendall, to say the least.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Accountability Update: Is Anybody Listening?

Our recent blog post about accountability had some good discussions on the GS-1102 LinkedIn group (closed group) about who actually is responsible for accountability. Should it rest squarely on government? What responsibility does the contractor have when the government is asleep at the switch?
A recent issue seems to have blurred that line, prompting the people responsible for being taxpayer watchdogs to testify incredulously about the lack of concern and the seemingly “sweeping under the rug” of the topic of accountability all together.
John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, recently took the Army Corps of Engineers to task for ineffective management and oversight of work by DynCorp, which is owned by affiliates of New York-based Cerberus Capital Management LP, from responsibility while long-standing deficiencies remained for work on a garrison at Camp Pamir in Kunduz province.
“The Corps’ own internal review says they didn’t make DynCorp pay to fix their shoddy construction, they didn’t collect the liquidated damages that DynCorp owed them, and they violated their own settlement policies,” he said.
“But they still think the settlement was ’proper and reasonable.’” Sopko said. “That wasn’t a settlement, it was a mugging.”
An isolated incident, and a difficult one no doubt, but it is nonetheless disconcerting when an agency seemingly ignores such damming evidence, but decides it is best to sweep it under the rug and move on.
Given the billions that have already evaporated into the sands of Iraq, yet more evidence of how the lack of accountability is hindering progress coming out of Afghanistan is not surprising.
Having performance conversations early and often is the critical component of performance measurement, and then executing lessons learned for continuous improvement. Most, if not all contracts require some rudimentary form of performance measure (i.e. weekly status reports, monthly reports, performance meetings, etc.).
Other than killing trees, what is the point of doing all this if we are not going to mutually benefit and ensure proper outcomes and meeting contractual requirements?

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Acquisition Workforce: Are We Going Backwards?

As the meat grinder of sequestration continues to move forward, the initiatives to improve and develop the acquisition workforce will more than likely come to a grinding halt, and move capabilities backwards at a time where forward movement is badly needed.

At this past week’s 2013 Acquisition Excellence Conference, The American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council and the General Services Administration (GSA) co-hosted what was dubbed a "training and education" event, but according to those that attended, the unspoken theme was “doing more with less” and strategic sourcing.

I regretfully was unable to attend, but it sounds like perhaps the conference was a missed opportunity to really “train and educate.” However, the fact that the conference experienced 30% less attendance from last year, that number is a symbol of what seems to be happening all across the board in the development of the acquisition workforce.

Make no mistake; the acquisition workforce is in crisis mode. With budget cuts and continued uncertainty, the opportunities to educate and develop the workforce will shrink accordingly.

This point was analyzed through the excellent publication from the Professional Service’s Council biennial Acquisition Policy Survey (formerly the Procurement Policy Survey). The section of Budget Stability discussed “doing more with less,” which also includes who will be doing the buying. Which leaves an interesting question: Who will be doing the buying?

According to Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) Joe Jordan, it may be left in the hands on the less experienced:

…The top federal procurement officer on Thursday called for “not a tweak but a full rethink” of the government’s planning for its acquisition workforce, warning that as many as 40 percent of the 36,000 federal contracting officers could retire in the next five years.

Joe Jordan, administrator of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, compared the coming brain drain to water flowing out of a “giant bathtub,” saying he plans to push agencies to “widen the aperture of who they recruit.”…

Adding insult to injury is the fact that due to budgets cuts, contractor support will also be cut, along with retirees coming back as consultants. We have no choice but to hand the keys over those with the equivalent of learner’s permits.

We now are back to the original issue: How do we assure the acquisition workforce has the capabilities to perform these most difficult missions under severe budgetary pressures and through less experienced 1102s?

OFPP Administrator Joe Jordan recently signed a service-level agreement (SLA) between OFPP and GSA to strengthen their cooperation and commitment to the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI), who I like to call the “red-headed step child” of the training institutions in government. What Defense Acquisition University (DAU) is to Defense acquisition workers, FAI is to non-Defense 1102s.

Therein lies the rub, where is the money? Is there a monetary commitment with this SLA? DAU has traditional gotten vast sums of money, much more than FAI in the past, which is why I gave FAI that moniker. Should we not be preparing all acquisition workers (which I include program managers) equally to perform effectively?

We can talk all day about people, but until a financial investment is slated and properly used to educate and develop the acquisition workforce, we will continue to experience gaps in skill sets and capabilities.

Not a silver bullet of course, but educating 1102s on effective and proper practices on how best to execute their missions is important nonetheless. Based on fewer opportunities to attend conferences, classes (in some cases mandatory for certification), and overall training and development, we can expect to go backwards in how we award and manage contracts.

Not a particularly welcome prospect.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lack of Accountability Hinders Contractor Oversight and Performance

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) is hoping that third time really is the charm in its seemingly desperate attempts at getting agencies to properly document contractor performance using the Past Performance Information Retrieval System (PPIRS). Although similar memos in 2009 and 2011 (here and here) focused on this issue of poor past performance data, little has changed.

As a result, OFPP Administrator Joe Jordan has issued his third wave of these memos earlier last week, where he outlined specific targets for PPIRS usage and outlining other initiatives to help with the inconsistent documenting of contractor performance.

The new memo outlines stepped targeting and goals, based on the level of agency inconsistency, so that better performing agencies have higher goals than agencies performing poorly. This certainly makes sense, given that not all agencies are performing at the same level so it would be nonsensical to expect all agencies to perform and abide by the regulations. All agencies are expected to be at 100% reporting by 2015.

Although the memo discusses targets and the actions taken to date, they have had little impact in improving past performance data.

According to the memo:

...OFPP has developed a MAX site that includes metrics from the standard
PPIRS Compliance Metric Report and allows for agencies to record their baseline and target information at A summary of the reports and tools available for use in this exercise are listed in Attachment 1, and the site will also include best practices gathered from earlier OFPP-led Acquisition Status (AcqStat) meetings...

What ever happened to those AcqStat meetings, where senior procurement officials where so supposed to review data and make strategic decisions to improve performance outcomes? According to Freedom of Information Act requests obtained by FierceGovernment, not much. Other than sign in sheets, the lack of transparency was alarming, if not expected.

I often advocate for fewer regulations and oversight, and there is absolutely no need to create new ones to address this issue. Nonetheless, improvements in this area can go a long way to help transform how contractors are selected for awards, and dramatically improve outcomes.

However, it is Page 3 of the memo that is most important to help understand the current failures, and the recommended actions that should be properly implemented that would have a dramatic effect:

...In support of this effort, agency CAOs and SPEs must also take the following steps to ensure that relevant performance and integrity material is reported appropriately:

1. Communicate to the workforce the importance of using past performance information, including the need to have frequent communication with contractors - such as holding interim evaluations to address performance issues, and share the agency’s plans for achieving success in this area;
2. Hold staff accountable for improving the quality and quantity of the information; [emphasis added]
3. Motivate employees to take action to fulfill this responsibility and use innovative practices to meet this requirement; and
4. Consider recognizing acquisition professionals who contribute to improvements in this area, such as through the annual CAO Council Acquisition
Excellence Awards…

Although I believe #3 above is redundant, certainly understanding the need of why this information is needed, and training the workforce on how to properly perform these reviews, are critical for these new goals to be met.

We can of course forget the opportunities for training and educating the workforce should the ridiculous meat-cleaver of Sequestration go into full effect, although those opportunities are already starting to disappear fast.

Nonetheless, what the memo fails to address is why the information is not being entered into PPIRS to begin with, and also why contractor oversight is currently so lax. It is a startling abrogation of ones duties to those responsible with being stewards of taxpayers money, and one that needs corrective actions through enforcement and proper program management.

For starters, some contracting officers that I have spoken to have taken the same attitude towards muted debriefs and the lack of transparency for reporting contractors demonstrating poor performance; that is to say "better safe than sorry, no thanks."

Because contractors have the right to appeal poor reviews, (rightly I might add, to defend against over-zealous officials abusing their power) some procurement officials just don't want to deal with the hassle. Although proper documentation should exist to demonstrate repeated poor performance, many argue the battles are not worth it.

Exacerbating the issue are highly performing procurement officials who get no top-cover from leadership due to the too-cozy relationships they have with contractors. The attitude is one of frustration, indifference, or simply ignorance.

Further, why should they? As a senior level procurement official told me while discussing the issue of the overall lack of accountability in the procurement process,
"People get paid every two weeks, if they perform or not."

I think it is safe to say we need to change this attitude. Past performance, especially for services, should be one of the most important evaluation criteria in selecting a contractor for award. However, the incomplete or missing data, combined with allowing contractors to submit their own evaluations from favored customers, often does not allow for differentiation and drives evaluations in areas that often let irresponsible contractors get way with murder because they offer ridiculously low-prices to win work in this era of institutionalizing "buying in."

In addition, what is the point of requiring in contracts status reports, weekly deliverables, monthly reports and deliverables, etc. in the areas of program management if they are not going to be used to address the issue of performance? What is the point of doing this? What contract does not already contain the interim status reviews being recommended?

Other than creating pretty pie charts, graphics, and killing trees, this vast amount of performance information is not being used properly, nor does it improve outcomes. I believe the lack of project management capability of the acquisition workforce is obviously an issue, but the one-two combination of poor accountability adds fuel to the fire.

Doing more with less is the foreseeable future in how we manage government contracts, but until enforcement and education really happen, we are epitomizing the definition of madness.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Certification and Competition, Don’t Move the Goal Posts

Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Joe Jordan recently got some much needed feedback on the debate about insourcing and outsourcing, and how those decision are being made. However, the insourcing versus outsourcing issue is not just external to the government.

A recent trend seems to be developing where Contracting Officers are inserting VetBiz verification requirements in Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) set-aside solicitations. The Air Force and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) have done this recently, and this trend is happening all too often. I have seen this requirement before, and I do not understand how this can be legal, given that the FAR does not require VetBiz certification, nor does the Small Business Administration (SBA) for SDVOSB certification. This is a requirement for Veterans Affairs (VA) and the VA ONLY, yet I believe this trend will continue until someone stands up and brings this to the attention of the proper entity to rule on this seemingly illegal requirement.

A company called 347 Construction Group brought this up in a recent protest, but it was done through the  SBA. The SBA’s Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) shot down the protest in their decision, and noted:

…Bid protest allegations must be raised at the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) or other similar forums, not at OHA…

…OHA lacks jurisdiction to decide whether the Air Force properly excluded Appellant from the competition…

Firstly, it drives me crazy when small businesses don’t understand fundamental contracting actives like filing deadlines to file a protest, but it goes to a bigger issue of feeding the beast of perception by some in government and large primes that small businesses lack the general education of being government contractors.

This requirement was also a great example of what pre-award protests are for, since this requirement should have never made it into the final solicitation to begin with. This requirement is unduly restrictive to competition, and SBA allows self-certification. Those are the facts, and the Air Force should have been held accountable for changing the goal posts and the rules, but 347 blew it.

More importantly, why on Earth did 347 “protest” to the SBA? Again, they lacked the knowledge they needed to take the proper corrective actions. You can read all about it in FAR Subpart 15.5, Preaward, Award, and Postaward Notifications, Protests, and Mistakes. However, a simple Google search on “protesting a federal contract” would include dozens of sites that would have helped guide 347.

I certainly understand the intent of the Air Force and FAA in wanting to ensure legitimate SDVOSB companies win their contracts, but this is not how it should be done. The current process at the VA in certifying veteran and service-disabled companies is challenging to say the least, with a 50% rejection rate, a myriad of bureaucracy and landmines, and an ocean of paperwork to prove legitimacy that makes one think the contractors that are working for VA are being paid by the page. Things are improving, but have a long way to go.

This is an unfortunate issue, and one that I hope gets corrected by standardized processes for all socioeconomic designations to be properly certified by the SBA, much like the 8(a) program. However, I do not think the VA program I working. The VA should instead work on their backlog of claims for our veterans, not getting into a program they have no business being in to begin with. That is what the SBA should be doing.