Buy Lines | Panel charts course for future of contracting

The Acquisition Advisory Panel, which Congress created to assess the government's procurement and management of services, will issue its final report in a matter of weeks. Hard at work for 18 months, the panel has heard from more than 100 witnesses and held numerous public meetings.

The panel's mandate is broad ? its initial 12-month term was extended by six months ? and the issues it is addressing are complex. Its much anticipated report will thus open an important, long-term discussion about the state of federal procurement policy.

The panel's final recommendations are not set, but it has reached tentative conclusions in some areas, including the appropriate role of contractors. On that matter, the panel has confirmed a real and ineffable trend in federal operations: the so-called multisector or blended workforce.

Recognizing this largely irreversible reality is an important step. For far too long, the public discussion around the growing role of contractors in the government has been based on an erroneous belief that the growth is the result of more than a decade of affirmative policy decisions.

In truth, the growth stems from the fact that the skill sets required by government to execute its missions are increasingly more resident in the private sector than in government.

No one, including the panel, is endorsing a wholesale outsourcing of government functions, but the panel recognizes that this is the new face of government service delivery. It also recognizes that the new paradigm means that agencies face new management challenges.

The panel has identified some of those policy and management challenges, including changes to policies that were designed for another era, such as the prohibition on personal services contracting.

Similarly, the panel's recommendations on interagency contracting reflect a realistic assessment of the environment. And in an effort to unify rules surrounding multiple-award contracting, the panel will likely recommend governmentwide extension of the competition rules that are applied to such contracts at the Defense Department.

Among the most carefully watched subjects of the panel's deliberations has been the area of commercial practices. In this area, the panel's report likely will be mixed. Look for the panel to report that the use of time-and-materials contracting is a non-commercial practice, and recommend further limitations on it.

Unfortunately, the panel's finding is inconsistent with other evidence, including surveys by the Professional Services Council and others, that suggests such contracting is not only common, but perhaps more common in the commercial world than it is in government.

The panel has other preliminary recommendations of significant concern as well. For example, it may recommend significantly narrowing the definition of commercial services. The regulatory definition includes "services of a type" sold in the commercial market. The panel may urge deleting "of a type" from that.

That would be most unfortunate. By definition, services are not monolithic.

Responses to customer requirements often must be tailored to meet needs and circumstances. That is why "of a type" was included in the regulations, and why it is so important to keep it. Moreover, there is little evidence that the regulations have been widely abused or misapplied.

The panel's report will not be the final word. Rather, it will lay the foundation for further discussions and review. With services acquisitions accounting for roughly 20 percent of the discretionary portion of the federal budget, it is a discussion that needs to continue.

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

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