The report Six Practical Steps to Improve Contracting by Dr. Allan V. Burman, Adjunct Professor, George Mason University, is based on a series of discussions co-sponsored by The IBM Center for the Business of Government and George Mason University concerning government procurement practices.
The report lists 4 major challenges and 6 major recommendations. These are the challenges:
- The Size and Competence of the Acquisition Workforce
- The Need for More Collaboration and Effective Management Tools
- The Role of Chief Acquisition Officers and Effective Oversight
- The Role of Contractors and the Multisector Workforce
These are the recommendations:
- Provide Sufficient Accountability and Authority.
- Designate Career Deputies.
- Plan Strategically for People.
- Invest in the Right Talent.
- Create Agency Business Councils.
- Transform OMB ’s Role.
Justifiably, this brief report concentrates on issues related to people, process, authority and responsibility. If you’ve ever worked with Federal contracting, you’ll know about its complexities, delays, costs — and its ability to be “gamed” by those who understand the inner workings of its operations and politics.
Given the size of the new Administration’s stimulus package, it’s easy to see that the pressures on existing Federal acquisition systems and procedures are going to be substantial. Add to this the issues identified by the report and the pending retirement of many senior acquisition staff and we have a recipe for significant problems that the new Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board will need to deal with.
I suggest that consideration be given to the use of collaboration technologies, including social media and social networking, as tools that can help streamline the procurement process. An example in point is procurement of government services from small businesses. In some agencies, the purchase of IT related services has spawned the introduction of revised procurement processes that, in some cases, have “pushed out” — some would say “outsourced” — certain aspects of the procurement process to the private sector.
Having been an IT management consultant and co-owner of a small consulting business, I know first hand the challenges involved in selling specialized IT services to Federal agencies where multiple prime contractors exist as intermediaries that must be sold to in lieu of selling directly to the Federal government. This practice of “outsourcing” procurement makes some economic sense but, as pointed out by Burnam’s report, it also raises the issue of whether responsibilities that are rightfully those of Government have in fact been outsourced to the private sector.
In my own experience, for example, it was not unusual, when researching and qualifying for government contracts as a small business, to have to develop relationships and sell to half a dozen prime contractors instead of one agency. Each prime contractor may have been reporting into the same procurement program and set of services, but each also put its own “spin” on the qualification process. One might use spreadsheets for collecting standardized data on service offerings, while another would use a remotely accessed database to collect data. A third might sponsor a vendor fair. One might answer the phone and respond to questions about the program, while another prefers transferring calls to voice mail.
Direct access to government employees with direct knowledge of requirements might also be a problem since (a) this would be bypassing the role of the prime contractor, and (b) the potential volume of calls might prohibit direct contracts officer - small business vendor contact.
I completely understand the issue of large numbers here. A single contract office cannot possibly respond directly to phone calls from a multitude of small businesses. The problem is that, when other organizations are put in to serve as intermediaries, two things happen:
- The potential for misunderstanding of requirements and processes rises.
- The costs of managing the process rises since (a) small businesses must now sell to a larger number of intermediaries and (b) a quasi-governmental bureaucracy of contracting systems must now be managed in addition to the agency’s own processes.
Guess who pays for all this?
As I discussed in Using Collaboration Technologies to Accelerate Innovation in Federally Funded R&D Programs there might be significant advantages in using social media and collaboration tools to more directly connect those who can describe government procurement requirements and processes and those who can potentially satisfy those requirements.
Here’s a hypothetical example I’ve created for discussion purposes. Let’s call the Federal agency imagined here “Agency X.”
Agency X should assess the adoption of off the shelf “web 2.0” tools such as collaboration software, blogs, wikis, and social networks to promote:
- improved access to information describing contract opportunities.
- improved access to knowledgeable experts and their public communications about these opportunities.
Done appropriately and with respect for confidential and proprietary information, “web 2.0” based approaches can expand the amount and quality of information available to potential subcontractors when they are considering the pursuit of subcontract opportunities. This, in turn, could improve the quality of bid/no-bid decisions, the quality and appropriateness of teaming relationships, and the quality of proposals.
One possible approach is to establish three types of interrelated web sites for a large procurement process involving thousands of contracts and contractors:
- A master front-end portal web site providing directory and search information for contract opportunities and contract officers. This could evolve from current web based contracting opportunities information resources.
- An automatically-generated interactive and searchable “web site” for each of the existing and new contract opportunities listed in Agency X’s own procurement forecast.
- Web access to information about the hundreds of official government contacts.
Each of these web sites can provide an interactive forum for a designated government contact person, his or her contract(s), and technical experts associated with the procurement.
Potential contract-specific web site features include:
- Questions about upcoming procurements can be posted as “threaded discussions” and answered publicly for all qualified participants to see, in real time. This could shorten the turnaround time involved in gathering and publishing formal responses to bidders’ conference questions.
- Audio and video podcasts documenting formal meetings and question and answer sessions can be posted in order to extend information access to potential bidders unable to travel.
- Government contacts can establish specific call in times for question & answer sessions (“webinars”) which are recorded and available for download as standard audio files.
- All contract opportunities, at all stages of the contracting cycle, will be tagged using an enterprise class tagging tool that simplifies retrieval of content from any designated subset of data.
- Potential prime and subcontractors can subscribe to XML feeds based on those tags to simplify the tracking of any updates or changes to information related to a particular tag.
Nothing I’ve suggested above requires the development of new technology. I’m also aware that numerous requirements for integrating with existing systems would arise. This would have cost implications. Such an approach to “opening up” the procurement process would also require the leadership and process changes suggested by the Burman report.
That, in my opinion, will be the main impediment. Teaching “an old dog new tricks” is never easy.
Nevertheless, as Federal agencies and their counterparts in the state and local governments stare at the pending flood of funds and reporting that need to be managed as part of the stimulus package, it may be time to stop doing “procurement business as usual.”
For a related topic see the following:
Copyright (c) 2009 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dr. McDonald is an Alexandria Virginia based management consultant. He can be reached by telephone at 703-549-1030 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Twitter ID is @ddmcd.