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Communications Are Vital to Improving Acquisitions

Two opposing views have emerged this week regarding communications with industry. According to Sen McCaskill (D-MO), chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee’s Contracting Oversight Subcommittee, the current relationship has apparently clouded the judgment of contracting officials to the point where objectivity has been compromised in contract award decisions.

During a recent hearing on how federal agencies use contract audits to detect and prevent waste, fraud, and abuse in government contracts, McCaskill conceded the relationship is too close, and expressed a bias toward auditors.

“Contracting officers have an ongoing relationship with the contractors that sometimes impact their ability to see everything clearly as it relates to some of the behavior of the contractors,” said McCaskill.

As much as I respect and admire Sen. McCaskill’s efforts to ferret out waste, fraud, and abuse in federal contracting, I could not disagree more with her premise. Firstly, Contracting Officers and industry should have a strategic partnership, as both parties are trying to execute the same goals and objectives. Of course government and industry have different means to achieve these goals, but it is through understanding each other and open communication that both parties will be successful. Communication between industry and government continues to be challenging, and advancing the agenda of building barriers and confrontation that Sen. McCaskill seems to be advocating will further exacerbate this issue.

Further, it is Contracting Officers that are given the authority to negotiate and enter into contracts on behalf of the government, not auditors. Financial analysts and Contracting Officers need to work together, in conjunction with industry, to get the best deal for the taxpayer and ensure all parties are setup for success. Adversarial relationships are neither objective nor productive, they just create friction and missed opportunities for successful outcomes.

Opposing this view has been Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP). Gordon launched a “myth-busting” campaign to help government officials understand that the fear of talking to industry is overblown, and that talking to industry is vital to increasing competition and to ensuring best value for the taxpayer.

“We need to be independent, but more communication can increase our independence,” he said. “In fact, more communication can overcome the tie between the contracting staff and a particular vendor.”

By opening discussions, agency officials can learn what other companies can offer them, Gordon said. However, agency officials feel like they don’t know enough about other companies due to limited interaction with industry. Too often, agencies have one contractor they have dealt with, and they will continue to work with that company, even preferring it over others.

“More communication, especially with competing vendors, may be the best oxygen to remedy that situation,” Gordon said.

Market research is prescribed in Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 10. Yet, the environment is such that the Administrator of OFPP is on a myth-busting campaign that following the FAR is a good thing and needed?

There is no question that improved communications are essential to ensure requirements are sound, that contract types are appropriate, and that metrics are effective. I have written about this topic, and I hope Gordon’s myth-busting campaign will help melt the ice of the current environment. However, much more is needed. Mainly, acquisition officials need to have guidance and oversight to ensure that the acquisition workforce is not beaten over the head while trying to communicate with industry. Officials must give the acquisition workforce the confidence and ability to perform these crucial pre-acquisition tasks without fear of retribution. It is this risk-averse environment that is one of the main issues with communication barriers, so focusing on this impediment should help see improvements in the quality and quantity of communications with industry.

The National Contract Management Association recently issued an open letter on this subject entitled An Open Letter Addressing the Need for Cooperation between Government and Industry. It is call to action to understand that government and industry both share a common goal, and that is serving the public.

Once this common goal is understood, then progress can be made in developing new channels to communicate, and see improvements in how the government buys and realize the cost-savings that are desperately needed in federal acquisition. I hope that Sen. McCaskill realizes that she is actually making a difficult situation harder, and that she and others needed to collaborate with Mr. Gordon and industry to achieve this common goal.

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Dennis McDonald

One of the best ways to support the “mythbusting” is to promote more openness in government-industry communications. My hypothesis: the more accessible communications about a specific procurement are, the less likely are protests based on favoritism or inside information access.

Jaime Gracia

Absolutely @Dennis. Effective pilots are already being conducted at GSA and DHS. I see resistance more from large firms in industry, that have a vested interest in getting returns from their considerable investments in marketing and navigating the status quo. Nonetheless, industry would be wise to help government be more proactive to help improve the requirements development process which is woefully inadequate, increase competition, and also improve the appearance of impropriety as you mention. It really is a win-win situation, and can only help improve government management.