September 29, 2010 by cs
In the span of just two days last week, three government offices issued advice about improving the $550 billion per year federal procurement system long plagued by waste and inefficiency.
On Sept. 14, the Office of Management and Budget outlined in a memo ideas about how to “save money, reduce risk and get better results” from government contracts. On the same day, the Defense Department released guidance for “obtaining greater efficiency and productivity in defense spending.” On Sept. 15, a presidential task force published its recommendations for improving federal contracting opportunities for small businesses.
The flurry of top-level attention is a welcome sign that the Obama administration is serious about reforming procurement at a time of fiscal constraint and budget deficits.
But the recent directives also unintentionally underscore the immediate need for better coordination among agencies and a more coherent reform agenda. Examined side by side, they reveal conflicting guidance that could sow even more confusion in a world so complex it vexes the most sophisticated lawyers and accountants. “The rule set becomes further confusing through these many efforts, and makes me worry what exactly will be the ‘real’ rules as those leading these initiatives depart and new ones arrive,” former Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne said in an interview.
Consider, for example, last week’s guidance about how the government should go about finding the best vendors and suppliers. The OMB memo recommended “pooling the federal government’s buying power” in pursuit of strategic sourcing. The president’s small business task force, on the other hand, urged “strategies to prevent unjustified contract bundling,” or aggregating in one contract supplies or services “previously provided or performed under separate smaller contracts.”
So what should a procurement official do? Create efficiencies and drive cost savings through pooling, or create more opportunities for small business by eschewing bundling?
To be sure, there could be scenarios in which these two policies actually can complement each other, but that’s not necessarily self-evident to procurement officers and others involved in government contracts on a day-to-day basis.
There are other potential conflicts in the directives. All three documents urge data standardization, for example. But the small business task force focuses on a coding system called the North American Industry Classification System while the Defense memo prefers the Product Service Code. And there are other standards out there, such as the United Nations Standard Products and Services Code used in two governmentwide systems. The documents’ diverging guidance on competition and contract types also could confound government contracting officers.
To avoid such confusion there must be better coordination among the offices entrusted with the important work of reducing costs and eliminating waste in federal acquisitions. Here are some suggestions:
- Governmentwide procurement reform should be centrally coordinated, preferably at OMB. That doesn’t mean every initiative must be run from the White House, but there should be enough central oversight to identify and address potential conflicts.
- The implementation of reform initiatives should be formally designed with other efforts in mind. “With the plethora of rules that govern the procurement system, it is important that we provide adequate implementation guidance to avoid creating more confusion on the part of the workforce,” says Steven Kelman, a public policy professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
- The reform must speak in a unified voice. Ultimately, the success of these initiatives rests in the hands of thousands of government professionals, as well as the vendor community. Leadership across all agencies must commit to and deliver the same message with as little ambiguity as possible.
These communication problems are not insoluble, but left unaddressed they could hamper the administration’s admirable and intense focus on improving procurement. The stars do seem to be aligned, for the first time in years, in support of meaningful reform. We must not miss this opportunity.
By Raj Sharma – GovernmentExecutive.com – September 24, 2010 – Raj Sharma is a visiting fellow at the Center for American Progress who focuses on improving government procurement and supply chain management practices.
September 28, 2010 by cs
The Pentagon’s top acquisition executive told an Air Force audience Wednesday that implementing the set of sweeping acquisition reforms was essential because without them, the nation could not give the troops the capabilities they need as defense budgets get tighter.
And to the Air Force officers and industry representatives in the audience, Ashton Carter said those who hope the department will be unable to achieve the proposed reforms, “you have to consider the alternatives.”
Carter listed as potential consequences: broken or canceled programs, “uncertainty and turbulence in the budget, market uncertainty, difficulty for industry, erosion in the confidence of the taxpayer that they are getting value for their dollars … and foregone military capabilities.”
But on the positive side, Carter said part of the acquisition improvement effort was to “incentivize productivity and innovation in industry” and that “profit is a perfectly appropriate topic” for the defense acquisition executives.
The day after he and Defense Secretary Robert Gates outlined the 23 changes to the contracting process at a Pentagon news briefing, Carter, the undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, told the Air Force Association conference at the National Harbor convention center that the challenge would be implementation.
The acquisition reforms had received a generally favorable review earlier in the day from Aerospace Industry Association President Marion Blakey, who told the AFA audience that many of the initiatives matched the industry’s recommendations.
And as Carter was speaking, the two leaders of the House Armed Services Committee’s acquisition reform panel issued a statement endorsing the new effort.
“We applaud Secretary Gates and Dr. Carter for tackling acquisition reform and for embracing many of the reforms identified in our panel’s report and in the House-passed IMPROVE Acquisition Act to meet this end,” said Reps. Robert Andrews, D-N.J., and Mike Conaway, R-Texas. They said the Pentagon initiatives made it even more important that the Senate pass the House-approved bill.
Carter told the AFA audience that an improved acquisition was necessary because the defense budget was expected to rise only slightly in real terms in future years.
With an end to the double-digit annual increases of the last nine years, he said, the Pentagon leaders concluded “we can’t support the troops with the capabilities they need unless we learn to deliver better value for the defense dollars and thereby achieve the programs we need with the dollars that the taxpayers can afford to give us.”
Carter expressed confidence they could achieve their objectives to save $100 billion over five years from “low value-added activities” so the funds could be shifted to the needs of the warfighters.
He said he was confident of success because they are “reasonable objectives, come at end of a decade of very rapid growth” and have the support of the president, the secretary and Congress.
Carter praised the Air Force secretary, chief of staff and acquisition executive for leading the way on procurement reform, citing their improvements in maintaining the nation’s nuclear weapons system and the effort to build a long-range strike capability at an affordable price.
Addressing a program of high interest for the Air Force, Carter said he could not tell them when officials would announce a winner of the competition to build a new refueling tanker.
“It’s not a secret; it’s unknown. It will be done when it’s done. We’re working very hard to get it right,” he said, reflecting a decade of mistakes and scandal surrounding the program.
– by Otto Kreisher – Congress Daily – September 16, 2010