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.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Friday, November 29, 2013
Thursday, November 7, 2013
|Photo by ActiveRain|
After weeks of reports about the debacle known as healthcare.gov (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 healthcare.gov, 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 FedBizOpps.gov. 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 healthcare.gov 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 healthcare.gov, 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.
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 healthcare.gov.
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 healthcare.gov to drive change. I think we taxpayers have had enough.
Monday, July 22, 2013
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
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
Sunday, April 7, 2013
Sunday, March 24, 2013
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
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 https://max.omb.gov/community/x/JoNKJQ. 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
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
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.