Buy Lines: Reviews work ? when you have all the facts

Stan Soloway

From the Section 1423 panel on services acquisition to the Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment Project, from the Quadrennial Defense Review to the deputy secretary of defense's "Acquisition Roadmap," there are an unusually large number of reviews of acquisition policy and practices. So many hearings -- but how much has been heard?

Each review has its own mission. All of those interested in the quality of government services contracting and management will watch carefully for the report of the 1423 panel, created by the 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act.

Similarly, the Defense Acquisition Performance Assessment Project and road map exercises could offer significant recommendations for improving the defense acquisitions system, particularly in regard to weapons systems.

QDR is expected to offer a broad strategic framework that will include how the defense acquisitions process can better support warfighters' needs.

Despite their mission differences, each of these reviews also can make an important contribution to the discourse on federal acquisition.

We face the most challenging acquisitions environment in decades, and the most significant of those challenges is maintaining credibility of the system itself.

In recent years, we have witnessed a series of acquisitions-related incidents, some of which have involved serious abuses. Reports of many other "cases" far too often have been based on limited information, even more limited procurement knowledge and an abject lack of context or perspective.

Nonetheless, the effects have been the same: a further, largely unwarranted dilution of confidence in our procurement system and its professionals.

Take the case of the Transportation Security Administration's contract with Pearson Government Solutions Inc. of Arlington, Va. Pearson was responsible for hiring more than 60,000 airport screeners in just more than three months. Much has been written about alleged cost overruns and abuses. Substantive and credible explanations are available but often have not found their way into print.

Pearson has been accused of incurring massive cost overruns on the contract, mostly fueled by the cost of using hotels for interviewing. How many people know that TSA dictated to Pearson to use the 150 hotels -- as opposed to Pearson's 950 facilities -- despite the contractor's recommendations to the contrary? In fact, Pearson's original bid for the work was predicated on using its own facilities.

And how many people are aware that the decision to use hotels coupled with TSA's decision to double the number of screeners to be hired -- from the 30,000 on which bids were based to the more than 60,000 eventually required -- are responsible for almost all of the cost increases on the contract?

The veracity of the allegations has been accepted largely without discussion, context or depth, further eroding the credibility of federal procurement. Regrettably, such investigative lassitude is now more the norm than the exception.

This is where each of the ongoing acquisition policy and process reviews comes in. By providing their insights into the state of federal acquisitions, these independent and objective review teams can help improve public discourse. They can offer important, broad and credible perspectives.

Our procurement system cannot function effectively if it lacks the confidence of the public or decision-makers. No one expects the teams to be the ethics police or to parse, in any detail, each individual allegation. But for them to ignore this glaring issue would be a serious mistake. Addressing it could be invaluable in creating a fair picture of acquisition practice.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council. His e-mail is soloway@pscouncil.org.

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