Partnership is a concept worth fighting for

Buylines | Policies, strategies and trends to watch

Stan Soloway

The best business relationships are characterized by open communication, a common understanding of objectives and a real commitment to mutual success. In other words, the best business relationships are true partnerships.

One of the main goals of the federal procurement process is to facilitate healthy relationships between the government and its suppliers while protecting the government's interests. That important concept is under a withering assault, which was made clear in the May 23 Washington Post article "Changes Spurred Buying, Abuses: Taxpayers Overcharged Millions in Sun Deal, Auditor Says."

The article quotes former Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Angela Styles on the government's relationship with its private-sector suppliers: "It's kind of like going into a used-car dealership and being too trusting. I don't think you really want a partnership with a used-car dealer because you're probably not going to get the best car at the lowest price."

Coming from an experienced government contracts lawyer, that statement is extraordinary. However, the notion that Styles' cynical view of the private sector might gain broader acceptance is of far deeper concern.

The article was about alleged contract abuses at the General Services Administration. I use "alleged" intentionally because some widely respected government contracting professionals disagree with the assertions made by GSA's inspector general and an agency contracting officer, and the matter has yet to be fully adjudicated.

Those professionals ? including Federal Acquisition Service Commissioner Jim Williams ? deserve better. Indeed, the fact that there is disagreement should remind everyone involved that there are two legitimate sides to the story that merit equal consideration and a decision based on a complete set of facts rather than one-sided allegations.

That approach is especially important when dealing with the highly complex world of government pricing clauses. Moreover, the article largely ignored and misrepresented the real benefits brought about by the acquisition reforms of the 1990s, including but not limited to steep discounts on GSA schedule prices and better service to agency customers. It also failed to delineate more recent policy changes designed to engender more competition and further improve the procurement process at GSA.

Unfortunately, such details do not seem to matter. Rushing to judgment is today's norm, as is the corollary assumption that one group of dedicated civil servants ? inspectors general ? are somehow purer and more right than others. The net result tends to be legislation and regulations based on broad assumptions and perceptions but rarely subjected to meaningful discussion or analysis.

There is no question that the government procurement infrastructure is not where it needs to be. GSA faces even broader challenges re-establishing its credibility with its customers as it improves its internal financial and management controls.

The degree to which otherwise informed and thoughtful individuals and organizations are increasingly willing to make or blithely accept sweeping allegations without demanding meaningful analytical rigor or due process ? and who then respond with equally broad-brush, punitive solutions ? is astounding.

And can do real damage. That damage comes in the form of bad policy and a continual, unfair demeaning of civil servants and their contractor partners.

Mitigating that damage requires an aggressive, collective effort to challenge misstatements of fact and stimulate a far more substantive dialogue. A bipartisan Congress recognized just 10 years ago that partnership is a goal well worth pursuing. It remains one worth fighting for.

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

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