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 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 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.

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