John Janek

Government procurement is an interesting, diabolical thing. You might as well go read HP Lovecraft – his stuff makes more sense. As someone who works in HR pointed out on govloop in a different thread, things are the way they are because of the importance of maintaining fairness and representing all equities appropriately. Where things get skewed is when the regulations become another game of sorts, a way to play by the rules without having to bend to the will of it.

You can imagine what traditional and professional sports under such auspicies might look like.

So, perhaps the better question is: how can we provide the right ethical, moral, and legislative training to the right people to empower contracting at all levels in an organization, and communicate that need for stewardship and thoughtful, deliberative participation? How do we create environments that:

1. Allow multi-discipline interaction and deeper understanding of the necessaries of procurement based on law and practice. SMEs should be the ones working hand-in-hand on a regular and consistent basis to guide a procurement through, and they should make the effort to truly understand the process (from RFI through to RFP and pre and post award meetings). When I’ve had truly successful procurement actions, it was a team effort all the way.

2. Encourage the right ethical and collaborative environments to ensure that the people stand up for the right action, and there is enough transparency internally to expose material weakness and wrong-doing.

3. Allow us all to fail safely. Everyone fails, and most of us learn via those failures. Those in Contracting Officers roles are told time and again that a mis-step will put you in jail. That sort of high bar does not promote the tenets and activities that you need for procurement reformation to have a net positive effect. Create more experiential learning, more learning based on communities of practice and peer review, and make the failures small procurements, instead of multi-billion dollar BPAs for website services.

4. Reach out to big companies and see what they do. Time and again I am amazed at how very large companies (10k+ employees) share many of the same basic tenets as equivalent government agencies. I would be really surprised if they don’t also have fairness doctrine and other core established pieces.

5. Re-vision the role of the CO and reinvigorate the workforce. These folks are, by and large overworked and underpaid. People simply expect stuff to show up without understanding what goes on behind the scenes (See #1). Part of any serious reform would necessitate transforming the role from “Contracting Officer” to “Contracting Facilitator” – turning the individual with the Warrant from gatekeeper to guide. In today’s government, this is one of the single biggest challenges, I think.

Now, admittedly when I’ve done CO work it’s been pretty small beans, but those are the pieces that immediately pop up in my mind. Although I appreciate the discussion, I’m not sure that Healthcare.org is any better or worse than some of the DOD procurements that have gone off the rails in recent years (some of which make healthcare.org look like child’s play). Are folks on the hill even associating that part of the healthcare.org failure might in fact be the logical constraints imposed by the contracts? And that’s a slippery slope, because someone may well ask “Why wasn’t there a component for end-to-end testing in the contract?” Beware the spector of more governance. It’s easy to invite in, nearly impossible to get out, and rapidly builds an audience.