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.