Steve Charles | Competition advocates take center stage

Buylines | Policies, strategies and trends to watch

Steve Charles

One of the all-encompassing, farthest-reaching questions in the world of public contracting is how to create meaningful competition within the procurement system and measure the results in a transparent way.

Focus on this issue follows a 10-year cycle as adjustments to the system are tried for five years and then evaluated for five years, followed by more fine-tuning. Competition is now back on the front burner, particularly in the area of services procured under multiple-award contracts, and adjustments ? such as giving the competition advocate position more responsibility ? are coming.

In a May 31 memo to chief acquisition officers and senior procurement executives, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator reminded us that competition saves money for the taxpayer, improves contractor performance, curbs fraud and promotes accountability. But various reviews by the Government Accountability Office and recommendations by the Acquisition Advisory Panel have concluded that inadequate planning, insufficient market research, and poor coordination among program and acquisition offices have led to ill-defined requirements, lack of head-to-head competition for task-specific solutions and pricing, and the absence of meaningful performance standards to measure results.

Seeking to make significant changes, the administrator promised renewed adherence to existing rules along with some new ones. To start, competition advocates are being asked to provide written analyses and recommendations for increasing competition in their annual reports, which are due Dec. 20. Planned changes to the Federal Acquisition Regulation will focus on a competition advocate review of the quality of acquisition planning and the results of task and delivery orders of more than $1 million. Other changes would limit task orders to one year, require the posting of notices on the Federal Business Opportunities Web site for sole-source orders, and strengthen competition rules for orders under General Services Administration multiple-award schedule contracts and other such contracts.

As someone involved in selling to the government, I have seen program people ? those with the mission and the budget ? often decide in a somewhat informal way what or whom they want and then expect the procurement personnel to get it for them. The contracting officers, their subordinates and the competition advocate become the enemy if they ask tough questions about the details of the acquisition plan, market survey or justification for other-than-full-and-open competition.

The reason most of us ? buyers and sellers alike ? get confused about how to compete is that competition procedures are different for each procurement method.

Most people know the difference between sealed and negotiated bidding, but what about streamlined acquisition procedures compared to task-order procedures or GSA schedule ordering procedures? Each contracting method has its own competition rules, but in my experience, most government buyers don't understand the differences. Rather, they often pick and choose across the methods, making up the rules as they go and forcing contractors to jump through hoops.

The policy-makers say they are not receiving the data they need to assure Congress that competition is occurring properly under multiple-award contracts. All of us in the field know that competition is keen, but it takes unpredictable forms. This means data systems are not tied to procedures at the level of detail necessary to generate the desired reports. If they were, we would see increased adherence to the prescribed procedures of each system.

Let's hope the new rules and procedures provide more clarity for buyers and sellers alike so the process is more predictable and allows us to compete more intelligently with the results that are readily measured. This way, we all get credit for the competition that actually occurs, including the competitive analysis that the people with the mission and budget perform before the requirement ever gets to contracts.

Steve Charles is co-founder of immixGroup Inc., a consulting firm in McLean, Va. E-mail him at steve_charles@immixgroup.com.

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