Silence not golden for state of federal procurement

Stan Soloway

I can't remember a time when government procurement leaders have been as silent as they are today. It's not that there isn't a lot worth talking about. So why the silence?

Some say it's because the community is under siege like never before. But most of the cases drawing the heaviest criticism have proven after investigation to be far less significant than they first appeared.

Take the Carnival Cruise Lines contract, awarded by the Navy for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Under the contract, the company offers temporary shelter for Hurricane Katrina refugees. Various media outlets and political leaders have alleged that the company's pricing is outrageous, and that it is gouging the government.

However, experts close to the contract have a different opinion and are confident of its efficacy.
The contract was competitively bid. Bob Dickinson, Carnival's president, is so confident that the pricing is fair and reasonable, he has publicly pledged to allow a full audit of the company's costs, even though the government normally would not have the right to conduct one.
Surely FEMA, the Homeland Security Department and other government officials know this. Why have we not heard their voices and the full story?

We so rarely hear those officials explaining for a concerned Congress and public that many of the allegedly no-bid Katrina contracts were robustly competed and pre-positioned long before the storm, or the reasons that limited competition was often necessary and appropriate in the storm's immediate aftermath.

Pearson Government Solutions Inc.'s contract with the Transportation Security Agency is another example. The Washington Post reported that Pearson charged the government more than three times what its security subcontractor charged Pearson. This drew significant attention and was a driving force behind a proposed Senate amendment on subcontractor billing.

It was also entirely wrong. Pearson charged the government exactly what the subcontractor charged Pearson with no mark-up at all. But the allegation was allowed to stand, with little or no apparent effort to counter it with the facts.

It's a disturbing trend that many have noticed. As we have witnessed with everything from Iraq and Katrina to the General Services Administration schedules, the complexities and challenges of federal procurement are not visible to or well understood by those outside the procurement community.

Those realities, coupled with the continued growth of and focus on government contracting, mandate expanded communications among government procurement leaders, Congress and the media.

Never before has it been so important to communicate proactively contract subtleties, aggressively challenge misconceptions and provide expert insight and context. That communications mandate apparently is not being met, even when there are good stories to tell.

This trend is debilitating to the process, the federal procurement community and those whom the contracts would serve. Silence implies a lack of support, and a workforce that feels unsupported will be less innovative and effective.

Silence allows those with limited knowledge to dominate the debate and feed Congress's worst suspicions about the state of federal procurement. That can lead to cures that are far more damaging than the disease.

Times are tough enough. A silent leadership can only make things worse.

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

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