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Reverse Auctions: A Tool to Realize Real Cost Savings

As Government continues to leverage its buying power through continued fiscal pressures, one process that is not getting enough attention is the use of reverse auctions. Reverse auctions are an effective and efficient means of realizing large savings on purchases of not only commodities, but highly defined services as well. Although current initiatives exist such as the General Service Administration’s (GSA) Federal Strategic Sourcing Initiative (FSSI), which encourages adoption of industry best practices, federal buyers are simply not going far enough in leveraging their buying power to maximize price savings. To achieve maximum efficiency, the Government should begin to create holistic strategic souring initiatives that include reverse auctions as a mechanism for cost savings, since programs such as FSSI are simply catalog buys to bidders that have been pre-qualified, and mimic the GSA Schedules program. Further, many Program Managers and other acquisition officials I have spoken to state that they do not always get the best prices by using these types of pre-negotiated arrangements, and thus buy either directly from vendors or execute procurements outside these initiatives. The result is ineffective buying and the continuation of not maximizing efficiencies to the detriment of the taxpayer.

Reverse auctions are by definition a structured competitive bidding event where competition can be maximized to help drive the price lower over the course of the event. One common reason I have heard for the poor adoption rate is technology barriers, which is a frankly a disingenuous reason. The benefits of potentially significant cost savings, enhanced transparency, increased collaboration, increased competition all outweigh any barriers that seem to be artificially created by Federal organizations. If the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Obama Administration are serious about Open Government and accountability, then enhanced adoption of reverse auction should be further explored.

Another stumbling block to adoption is the issue of transparency, as the risk adverse nature of Government creates issues that should not exist through fear of protest that seems to be paralyzing acquisition decision-making. The reverse auction process is Acquisition 2.0 in motion, as reverse auctions create a structured and automated negotiation process with transparency at its core, since the process depends on vendors creating a clear and documented process for creating the pricing structure and the subsequent contracted price. It is the openness of the process that should be embraced, since the reverse auction allows for real time pricing feedback, and also allows acquisition officials to have real time visibility into the negotiation. This type of structure and the transparent process creates and enhances competition, reduces complexity, enhances collaboration, and ensures compliance with the acquisition policies and regulations.

It is these types of procurement methods that should be embraced, and will need to be further explored to help create holistic strategic sourcing initiatives for realizing true cost-savings by adjusting processes, ensuring leadership drives change, and breaking the endemic status-quo culture of Government. Successful examples of reverse auctions already exist through both Defense and civilian agency use, so lessons learned are available for use and need to be expanded upon to help with widespread adoption. As OMB continues to issue guidance on improving federal acquisitions and government management in general, reverse auctions need to be part of this process of continuous improvement and increasing accountability to the taxpayer.

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