Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Will Category Management Take a Pause, or Full Speed Ahead?
One of the initiatives that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) continues to diligently institutionalize is Category Management. This initiative, a governmentwide effort to consolidate contracts to save money through reduced duplication, is widely used in the private sector.

However, many in industry and government are concerned, and with good reason. Improving federal acquisition is a very difficult task, and OMB and the General Services Administration's (GSA) efforts are laudable and should be commended, especially those that look to reduce contract duplication, and save taxpayer money. However, the OMB Circular No. A-XXX, “Implementing Category Management for Common Goods and Services” raises many issues.

My principal concern is the way that contracts are to be consolidated, and the way execution of this goal under Category Management will affect the small business community. My firm's comments to the circular can be found here.

Roger Waldron, president of the The Coalition for Government Procurement, has raised a number of significant issues when it comes to Category Management, and the concerns with the “best-in-class” (BIC) contract solutions for mandatory use, I believe, are worth noting.

...Mandatory contract vehicles could lead to significant risk for government and industry. Without vigilance, a well-intended cross-functional team could designate “winners and losers” through mandatory contract solutions for customer agencies and contractors in an attempt to manage the market. Such an approach can limit access to ongoing commercial competition and innovation, as well as negatively impact the small business community... 

One size does not necessarily fit all, and this is one of the major concerns for both government and industry that needs further review. Also of note is the fact that BIC contract solutions are seemingly not getting enough industry input. For these initiatives to be successful, more input, not less, is necessary from both industry and government stakeholders.

Certainly input from industry partners should be sought to help government make more informed decisions about commercial solutions.

It will be interesting to see how this initiative moves forward under a Trump Administration. I believe the goals to be important, but I know many in industry do not have the information they need to help government reduce regulations, streamline processes, and improve competition and innovation.

Perhaps a pause is in order, and a fully vetted review and cost benefit analysis can be conducted or shared. If after all the facts are in, and the initiatives need to move forward as-is, then I believe we can call agree to get on board and do what is necessary for successful implementation.

I am just not sure we are there yet...

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Needed or Redundant Regulation: You Make the Call

Remember those "You Make the Call" commercials that used to air during Monday Night Football games during the 1980’s and early 90’s, where you test your knowledge of the rules against the officials?

If not, here is a sample:

I was talking to several people this week about the utility of a proposed rule by the Federal Acquisition Regulatory Council in Nov. 29’s Federal Register, which is aimed at improving communications between government and industry.

According to the proposed rule:

...“government acquisition personnel are permitted and encouraged to engage in responsible and constructive exchanges with industry, so long as those exchanges are consistent with existing laws and regulations, and promote a fair competitive environment.”... 

Doesn't the language in the Federal Acquisition Regulation Part 10 (Market Research) effectively provide similar language and/or sentiment? Is this new rule even necessary? How is creating this new rule going to change anything?

As reported by Federal News Radio:

...Two mythbusters memos from the Office of Federal Procurement Policy; the reestablishment of the Frontline Forum for contracting officers; a host of Web and in-person educational sessions over the last five years, and still the idea that government and industry can communicate about contracts is hard for many acquisition workers to grasp... 

So this is where we are. Does anyone really think the communications issue is getting better? Yes and No. Is it the fear of auditors? Too much oversight? A risk averse culture that creates fear of doing something wrong? Lack of training? Leadership?

Yes on all counts.

For starters, the message of communication and collaboration with industry seems to have stayed at the top of most organizations, because most leaders in the federal procurement world state they are implementing such measures.

Really? Because someone needs to talk to the acquisition workforce. The acquisition workforce is being taken to task for not communicating more, and being more collaborative. Granted there is truth to that complaint. However, it is the equivalent of screaming at a customer service agent of a large corporation. It might make you feel better, but that person is doing their best to follow the policies placed before them, along with the resources and direction they have been given.

The acquisition workforce needs help to improve. They need resources, training, and the ability to be empowered to make decisions, do what is in the best interest of the taxpayer, and be able to make mistakes. Provide them motivation, show them how, and establish the tools they need to be more successful. 

Under the current environment of being overworked, poorly trained and supported, not having proper direction and guidance, fear of effective engagements under threat of protest, not to mention intense oversight scrutiny, I don't see how any new rule of telling the workforce to do what they already know they need to be doing will change.

We need to figure out why this collaboration is not being done, and help create a culture of being able to be more communicative. Some of the best federal contracting officers and program managers I know sadly tell me they simply have no reason to continue being collaborative and communicative with industry. Why bother, when they don't get supported by above, get misinformation or no support from legal, and continuously are getting hammered from all sides? All negative, and no positive reasons.

There is vast room for improvement on both sides of the fence, because this is not just a problem with the federal government. For example, threatening the "P" word at the drop of a hat is counterproductive, and breeds the resentment and fear that closes the doors to effective communication.

There are pockets of excellence that need to be leveraged, such as liaison positions in government, ombudsman, and great leadership at the General Services Administration in developing programs such as Alliant, OASIS and Networks 2020. You can also just follow Jose Arrieta around town in Washington, D.C., who is a maverick in this area, and did a marvelous job at the Department of Homeland Security (video), and continues this work as Director of the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization at the Department of Treasury.

Let's do what we need to do. We don't need more rules and regulations. We know what the problems are, so let's fix it.

So, to the original question. Is this new proposed rule a path forward to improving the communications issue?

You make the call!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Small Business Teaming: 3 Tips For Forming Productive Partnerships
Although the small business market is currently difficult, there are opportunities for small businesses in the federal market. This is particularly true in the professional services sector, where large businesses are seeing their contracts being recompeted as socioeconomic set-asides.

As a result, teaming relationships for small businesses are of particular interest, and can provide an excellent opportunity for new business either as a prime or subcontractor, with new partners and relationships. However, teaming does come with issues that are of particular concern as well, such as running afoul of small business size status, eligibility, affiliation, and being taken advantage of by firms needing to “rent” a designated socioeconomic designation.

Here are three issues to consider when teaming for small businesses: 

1. Details. Worrying about details later is a recipe for disaster. The teaming agreement should detail how the parties will structure the team, and the work that each party will be performing through a clear statement of work. Further, the teaming agreement should have very specific terms that demonstrate the party’s intent to be bound in the structure of the relationship (e.g. the proposed prime contractor “SHALL”), and their performance in connection with the contract, such as those that meet limitations on subcontract provisions. You should also have a copy of the subcontract you plan on entering into, should the proposed prime be awarded the contract.

The last thing on Earth you want is to have an unenforceable agreement that is not definitive enough to qualify as enforceable. Do not leave details vague, and do not leave issues subject to too many conditions.

2. Communication. Small businesses must ensure that when executing the contract, there are no negative impacts on their small business size or status. Make sure that any issues such ownership, control, and affiliation are dealt with, and that all requirements for small business regulations and governance are met. This is especially true for firms that are certified in the Small Business Administration’s 8(a) program, and for veteran owned business certifications by the Department of Veteran’s Affairs.

3. Exclusivity. The purpose of the relationship is to create a winning team that complements each other, and having each party add capability that wins the contract and differentiates the team from the competition. Exclusivity provisions are especially necessary for small businesses as primes, because it prevents the larger businesses sub from “shopping around”, and teaming with others businesses to win no matter what. Not having exclusivity provisions defeats the purpose of teaming. Make sure that your proposed teaming partner is teaming with you, and you alone, such that you are the only offeror benefitting from what the teaming partner brings to the table.

Understand that your short-term gain could have devastating impacts long-term. Small businesses too often sacrifice these concepts, and that is a mistake. A small business should understand that they need to be prepared to walk away from the teaming agreement, if it is in your firm’s long-term interest.  

Always consult a legal professional, and ensure your teaming agreements are clear, concrete, and will help shape the successful teaming partnership to the benefit of both parties.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Are you a small business with a federal government contract? Not for long…
There is no question that the current environment in the federal market for small businesses is challenging, to say the least. However, the environment for small business may soon need to be declared a full on disaster zone.

Two recent developments are moving forward to continue making being a prime contractor and a small business more difficult, if not impossible.

First is the recent decision by a federal judge to rule against the small business community. One of the leading voices fighting for small business federal government contractors is Lloyd Chapman, President of the American Small Business League (ASBL). Mr. Chapman had hoped to bring to light the state of the small business federal government contracting market, and the way that small businesses get cheated out of billions of dollars in potential contracts.

In the wake of the decision, Mr. Chapman stated:

"This case would uncover billions in fraud in federal small business contracting programs. If the Federal courts cannot stop fraud in federal small contracting, where do you go?"

According to a Government Accountability Office report, the Small Business Administration had included billions of dollars in federal small business contracts to over 5,300 Fortune 500 firms and other large businesses. Therefore, the government's compliance with the goal of awarding 23% of government contracts to small business continues to be in question.

Even government contract experts agree that the small business community is seeing a large share of lost contracting opportunities:

Professor Charles Tiefer, one of the nation's leading experts in federal contracting law and former Commissioner of Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, submitted a declaration in support of the ASBL case. "If the lawsuit had been allowed to get its rightful day in court on the merits, the lawsuit would have required the SBA to give all small businesses -- and doubly so for minority, women-owned, and disabled veteran businesses -- a larger and proper share of federal procurement."

The ASBL plans to appeal the ruling to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Second, and more pernicious, is the unthinkable actions by Congress, who are supposed to be fixing this problem.

With no surprises behind the impetus, Section 838 of the 2017 National Defense Authorization ActCounting of major defense acquisition program subcontracts toward small business goals, is nothing short of a small business killer.
The impact would be catastrophic on the small business community, since the Pentagon spends the most. This provision allows the Department of Defense to count first tier and second tier subcontract dollars towards the current goal established for competitive and noncompetitive set-aside awards to small business. Subcontract dollars would therefore replace dollars being awarded to small contractors today.

To see the potential impact, and the potential disaster awaiting small businesses, Guy Timberlake, the Chief Visionary Officer of the American Small Business Coalition, has an excellent analysis on the situation.

In three separate events in Washington D.C. this week where this issue was mentioned, all three representatives of the small business office for agencies at the individual events were excited at the prospect. They falsely believe this will help meet their numbers, but correctly believe this will be much less work for them. It was clear where the priorities are for these, and other, small business offices across federal government.
All small businesses should be up in arms over these developments, as the powers that be are aligned to punch down and cheat small businesses out of billions of dollars in federal contracts. Small businesses need to be aware of what is happening, and contact their members of Congress.

If this gets adopted across the federal government, small business government contracting can be a thing of the past.