Obama memo ushers in new era

President Barack Obama’s memo on government contracting, released March 4, should open the door to an important dialogue on federal acquisition and the essential partnership between the public and private sectors. The memo reflects the president’s philosophy on and commitment to performance, efficiency and accountability. As such, its essence, and the real opportunity for substantive new dialogue it offers, should be embraced.

To the president’s credit, the memo makes no new policy and leaves open as much potential for validating existing policy as it does for creating new rules and regulations. But there is cause for concern: it could just as easily result in a destructive debate dominated by tunnel vision, parochial interests and dogma.

Some of that concern is generated by the president’s choice of language in his accompanying statement. For example, he talked about the sharp decrease in the use of full-and-open competitions in federal contracting, but he did not acknowledge that full-and-open competition is only one of several types of competitive contracting. Coincidentally, his memo acknowledges this critical distinction. Indeed, in the acquisition of services, competition is on the increase and, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ February analysis, is now at an all-time high of about 70 percent.

Using language that ignores an array of Government Accountability Office and other objective analyses, the president appears to lay virtually all the blame for cost over-runs on weapons systems at the feet of contractors. Fortunately, the memo recognizes the many factors that are often at the heart of the problem, including requirements scope and stability, funding, and others. What’s more, the president calls for an end to wasteful contracts — a goal with which no one could disagree — leaving it for the review process to determine whether such contracts involve work that simply doesn’t need to be done and should simply be terminated or whether they reflect poor performance and should be recompeted.

Beyond the gap between the president’s words and the substance of the memo, a broader imbalance is also emerging, particularly in Congress. Nowhere is there any discussion about extending his philosophy of accountability, efficiency and performance to internal agency activities. Instead, it’s all about contracting. There seems to be an assumption that contractors are an evil to be tolerated rather than an important partner with whom to collaborate. It’s almost as if things would be better if we could just get back to the good old days, whatever those were. But this isn’t the 1960s, and for many reasons, the face of government has changed.

Already this year, we’ve seen several — generally one-sided — hearings on the role of contractors and challenges in federal acquisition. Legislation has been introduced to prohibit any A-76 or competitive sourcing studies and establish a governmentwide preference for “in-sourcing,” which would enable agencies to bring contracted work back into the government without benefit of any cost, performance or other analytical rationale. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who as far as I can tell has never hidden her disdain for federal contractors, said the bill would “level the playing field for federal employees.” It doesn’t level the playing field; it obliterates it. And it flies in the face of the management philosophy Obama has set forth.

The president has set in motion a series of activities designed to enhance competition, government performance and accountability, all on behalf of the taxpayers. for whom the real question is whether and how well the government delivers; whether it’s by federal employee or contractor makes no difference. We owe the taxpayers the benefit of an intellectually honest, consistent and analytically sound process that can achieve the president’s goals. Then, let the chips fall where they may.

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