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Swimming in the Waters of Vendor Communication

 

“The greatest risk is the risk of riskless living.”  Steven Covey

If you were put in charge of a beach and you wanted to make it safer, what would you do?  I frequently ask this question when I speak about vendor communication, and aside from a few puzzled looks, I usually get the same responses: put up some warning signs, forbid sharp objects, put out trash cans, post lifeguards, etc.  I then ask if anyone knows what one thing has proven to make beaches measurably safer.  Most don’t.  I don’t either, but it’s been suggested that sharks might just do the trick.  Why sharks?  That’s because shark attacks are scary occurrences that are widely reported due to their rarity and the emotional impact that such events have.  People can imagine the drama of an attack and remember it long after it occurs.  That keeps the beach safer because it keeps people away.

Think about the last shark attack you heard about.  You probably saw it on the news or read about it on your iPad.  You may have even seen a video of a reporter standing on the beach near where the attack occurred, as if the shark itself might show up and describe its version of events.  For days afterward there were probably tellings and re-tellings and dire warnings about the dangers of sharks.  Not surprisingly, people tend to stay away from places where things like shark attacks occur, preventing them from being exposed to the far riskier riptides and other dangers that can be just as lethal as, and far more frequent than shark attacks.  It might be years before the stories stop and the event fades from the collective memory.  Hence, sharks make beaches safer for a time as people take measures to avoid meeting one.

Daniel Kahneman, in his seminal work, Thinking Fast and Slow, calls this the availability heuristic[i].  Even though we know that shark attacks are relatively rare, since they are dramatic events that attract a lot of attention, they are more easily brought to mind and tend to have a greater effect on our decisions than their statistical frequency would otherwise suggest is needed.  The “myth” that’s created of the risk of a shark attack stays in people’s consciousness and prevents them from engaging in what otherwise might be a fun day at the beach.

Misconceptions

Examples of the availability heuristic can be found in the Government acquisition arena as well.  Many of the “myths” that have developed over time have come from dramatic events that have taken place in the past.  Those on the Government side can probably relate to the image of a protest letter arriving in September.  Even if you haven’t received one, you probably know someone who has, or someone who knows someone who has.  Told and re-told, the story goes from just a story to become an imperfect reason to avoid certain activities like communicating with vendors.  It doesn’t matter how distant that unfortunate acquisition team was that received the actual protest -- if they exist at all -- you might still find yourself taking actions that are designed to avoid such a thing from happening to you, including limiting your communication with industry.  Has your team ever refused to meet with a vendor in order to “avoid a protest?”  Even though the statistical frequency of protests is very small, and sustainment rates even smaller, avoiding the myth of ever-present protests can still be a bigger concern than engaging with vendors, just like avoiding the myth of ever-present dangers can be a bigger concern than enjoying the ocean.  Out of the hundreds of thousands of Federal procurements in FY 11, only 2,353 protests were filed with GAO.  Only 16% of those, just 67, were sustained[ii].  No doubt those were dramatic events for the acquisition teams that went through them, but the details can become lost in the re-tellings, and what remains is the misconceived concern that the risk of protest is greater than it is and the consequent steps to avoid them at the cost of communicating.

While we’re on the topic, let’s talk about those protests for a moment.  As outlined in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s original “Myth-Busting” memo in February 2011[iii], avoiding communication isn’t a shield against protests.  Quite the opposite, vendor communication is fundamental to the acquisition process, and can be one of its most important parts.  What is a protest really, other than a vendor seeking better engagement?  Right or wrong, a protest is an indication that the protestor isn’t satisfied with the amount of communication that took place during the procurement process.  “If contracting officers conduct meaningful, and constructive communications during the course of a procurement, issues that give rise to a bid protest are likely eliminated.”[iv]

 

Figure 1 - From "Myth-Busting"

Industry Myths

While a protest letter may not be as dramatic an event for industry as it is for the Government acquisition team, receiving an unsuccessful offeror letter may be even worse (and occurs far more frequently).  Weeks of work in some cases, planning, preparing, and crafting a response all shot down in an instant.  Unlike a protest, after which the acquisition team will continue with its procurement, for an unsuccessful vendor, the day at the beach is over.  How did we lose?  In the immediate search for an explanation, perhaps many things come to mind, all negative, and many aimed squarely at the Government’s process, or perhaps even at the acquisition team itself.  In the struggle to understand how that much effort didn’t result in an awarded contract, it can be easy to look at the process as the culprit.  Kahneman’s work suggests that this might be an example of “framing.”  The emotion of the struggle and loss sometimes evokes a reaction that can limit further communication, or worse, elicits a confrontational stance.

But what really happened?  Win or lose, the end of the competition provides an opportunity to find out: asking for a debriefing.  A debriefing is the best way to find out not only what happened, it also provides some insight into how to do better next time.  Agencies must provide debriefs in accordance with FAR 15.505 and 15.506 (and brief explanations under FAR 8), but many competitions still occur without them because the offerors simply didn’t ask.  Debriefs give the agency an opportunity to point out weaknesses in the vendor’s proposal and provide them with the rationale for award.  “You can use the information provided to adjust your proposal strategy in future procurements to be more competitive.”[v]  Even though protests are a valuable part of the process, they aren’t really designed to provide insight into how a vendor can do better next time.  Debriefs, on the other hand, are fundamental to the procurement process and help continue the communication between Government and industry, giving both a shot at better acquisition outcomes in the future.

Figure 2 - From "Myth-Busting 2"

Vendor Communication Plans

For Government teams, this doesn’t suggest that you go willy-nilly into communication with vendors.  There are still many considerations for engaging with industry, and the goal of any communication plan should be to improve the productivity of communication, not just its quantity.  For industry, please don’t take this as a sign to start blasting away messages to anyone@agency-we-want-to-do-business-with.gov either.  That can end up in a quick, one-way ticket to the junk email filter.  There is, however, quite a bit of information available to both Federal acquisition teams and industry about how to communicate effectively and overcome some misconceptions.

OMB in its “25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Information Technology Management[vi], included as one of its key tenets, an educational campaign to address misconceptions such as these about communications during the acquisition process.  OFPP soon after issued its “Myth-busting” memo, addressing many of the misconceptions that may unnecessarily hinder agencies’ engagement with industry using existing flexibilities.  In addition, each of the 24 CFO Act agencies was asked to complete a vendor communication plan to give better direction to the workforce and to clarify the nature and schedule of engagement opportunities for industry.  Now posted to agency websites, these are rich documents, filled with specifics about each agency’s engagement with industry, the roles and responsibilities of agency personnel, and details of agency engagement events, such as industry days, small business outreach sessions, and other opportunities for industry and agency personnel to communicate. Many small agencies have also reviewed or developed their vendor communication guidance.

Continuing the discussion, OFPP recently issued a “Myth-busting 2” memo[vii], addressing industry misconceptions and providing facts about the Federal procurement process to dispel them.  This second installment is also filled with examples of effective engagement methods, best practices used by agencies, and many helpful links for vendors and agency personnel seeking productive interactions.  If you’re starting down the road on vendor communication, or even if you’re somewhere in the middle, these are great resources that should be read and shared widely.

The Waters Ahead

The most effective solutions to enable government to better serve the American people, and opportunities for industry partners willing to provide those solutions are out there, somewhere, sometimes drifting by just out of notice.  Early, frequent, and constructive engagement between agencies and industry is the ocean that oftentimes separates us and prevents us from bringing the two together.  There are sharks.  And some will meet them.  But the value of the Federal procurement process and its Government and industry participants is in actively seeking answers to the challenges facing our country together.  To do that means that we will need to swim in those waters.

“The man who does things makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all – doing nothing.”  Benjamin Franklin

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[i] Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

[ii] GAO Bid Protest Annual Report to the Congress for Fiscal Year 2011, GAO-12-199SP, Nov 15, 2011, available at http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-12-199SP

[iii] “Myth-busting”: Addressing Misconceptions to Improve Communication with Industry during the Acquisition Process, February 2, 2011, is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/procurement/memo/...

[iv] See “Myth-busting”, page 7.

[v]“ Myth-Busting 2” at page 14.

[vi] The 25 Point Implementation Plan to Reform Federal Information Technology Management is available at

http://cio.gov/documents/25-Point-Implementation-Plan-to-Reform-Fed...

[vii] “Myth-Busting 2”: Addressing Misconceptions and Further Improving Communication During the Acquisition Process, May 7, 2012, is available at http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/omb/procurement/memo/...

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Comment by Jaime Gracia on November 23, 2012 at 2:44pm

Leadership is failing to properly promote, and implement, the key tenets of MythBusters. This entire initiative is predicated on ensuring effective market research and activities in the pre-acquisiton phase to build better requirements, ensure competition, promote innovation, and have affordability centered around performance. In other words, make sure FAR Parts 10 & 12 (for commercial items) are followed.

Overwhelmingly, the lack of acquisition planning makes "We don't have time" a valid excuse.

I also continue to be amazed at what little effect MythBusters has had on buying organizations. I recently conducted acquisition training for PMs with senior level government managers (GS-14s and 15s), and not one person had even heard of MythBustersNot one

We can never hope to implement these practices unless we figure out a better communications strategy, in addition to holding leaders accountable for implementation of these tenets for effective buying. 

Comment by Ben Coit on November 13, 2012 at 3:55pm

Al- This is a great post. ACT-IAC and OMB recently launched a survey to assess the effectiveness of the Myth-Busting Initiative to-date: check it out here: http://www.actgov.org/sigcom/ombmyth-busting/Pages/default.aspx

It would be great if you could take the survey, share it with your friends, and also share any feedback you have with me directly. 

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