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Smoother Acquisition Sailing – An Argument for Increased Communication

Article By John Coombs, Fellow, CFCM, DAWIA III

On a trip to San Diego I watched a Navy destroyer slip quietly under the Coronado Bridge. I remembered a phrase I’ve repeated many times throughout my career as a procurement leader and manager: “Don’t try to dial up an aircraft carrier in port to the perfect position. Just get it steaming in the right direction, and adjust its course along the way.”

In my mind’s eye, I could see the impractical scene of multiple tugs trying to perfectly align a massive vessel in the narrow harbor, only to have to correct the course repeatedly as the ship made its way to open sea.

Our federal procurement processes can be a lot like dialing up that aircraft carrier. We strive for weeks to consider and address every possible detail, and run our document drafts up and down the masts of our procurement and acquisition chains of command, through legal reviews, solicitation review boards, and peer reviews, all within the confines of the harbor. We feel compelled to adjust and re-adjust the course of our acquisition plans, strategies, and solicitations before ever beginning the voyage, all the while knowing we can never fully account for changing winds, weather, and current along the way. And when we finally release that request for proposal (RFP), and dozens of questions break over the bow from industry, we may feel defeated, already drained by our exhaustive preparations.

Educate to Empower

As procurement leaders we must ensure our teams of professionals learn to get their procurements steaming in the right direction early and how to adjust course along the way. And we must empower them to take actions while underway that help facilitate course corrections. We cannot keep the acquisition tied up until the weather is perfect – this causes unnecessary delay and frustrates the team.

Info Exchange Speeds the Process

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) released Myth Busting and Myth Busting II instructing and empowering procurement professionals to get their procurements underway. The OFPP asserts that industry is often the best source of current market information and best practices critical for program managers and procurement officials as they develop acquisition strategies, seek small businesses opportunities, and negotiate contract terms.

By communicating with industry early in the acquisition process, we can help answer questions about performance, incorporate industry standards, understand market influences, and identify emerging technologies and incorporate these into our solicitations. Yet, some question how effective the Myth Busting campaign has been and many acquisition and procurement professionals are still unclear on the rules around industry communication.

I encourage you to perform the following best practices before every major acquisition:

  • Review OFPP’s Myth Busting memoranda
  • Develop and execute a vendor communication plan
  • Hold industry days
  • Release and maintain an accurate acquisition forecast
  • Meet openly with vendors to discuss the procurements in the forecast
  • Release draft RFPs to solicit industry input

These engines of success can get your procurements steaming on the right course with fewer course corrections like proposal amendments, revised work statements, and lengthy Q&As.

Related Topic: 5 social media traits that can improve an Acquisition Communication Platform

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Jaime Gracia

All agencies have developed vendor communication plans, but few use them. In fact, it is the lack of communications with industry that are currently hampering efforts to improve outcomes through improved requirements.

In my classes, I always make it a point to discuss the importance of MythBusters, and the positive impacts proper implementation of these tenets can have on the organizations of the students. However, the problem is much more fundamental.

Firstly, many procurement personnel have never even heard of MythBusters, let alone practice effective communications. Market research is done poorly, if at all, and the barriers to communication are deep as the “us versus them” attitudes are pervasive by government procurement personnel.

Many procurement personnel claim that legal forbids these communications, especially one-on-one meetings, which are normally the most productive meetings for government to learn about the need and refine requirements. I actually had a senior contracting officer tell me industry days are illegal, which they of course are not by FAR 10. It is the alleged lack of time and resources meme that is always another culprit, resulting for improper or poor acquisition planning.

This level of misunderstanding by front-line personnel are a severe impediment, and it would behove industry to help educate their government customers by introducing MythBusters, discussing the memos, and hopefully help address objections and work with legal.

Only through a partnership of mutual trust, cooperation, and collaboration can we hope to help alleviate the current status quo of failed outcomes and programs. In these budget austere times, we need to be talking more, not less.

John Coombs

Jaime makes some valid points, but I hesitate to paint the procurement community with such a broad brush. Resources like GovLoop that enhance the dialogue with the federal acquisition workforce and with firms like Integrity that support the federal government will help bust the myths about communication. Remember – get that carrier steaming!