Industry clamors for OFPP chief who listens

Openness could be critical as new administrator looks to reform procurement

The private sector was largely left in the dark about the White House’s new information technology storefront, Apps.gov. They heard about the site after it went live Sept. 15, resulting in just 10 contractors selling their wares on the Web site.

6 priorities for the new OFPP administrator

Daniel Gordon will face a full-slate of issues and initiatives as the new administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Here is a wish-list based on interviews with industry experts and observers. Note: The interviews were conducted before Gordon's nomination was announced.

-Be open to industry and ask for its feedback.
-Deal fairly and evenhandedly with industry and policy reforms. 
-Encourage innovative approaches to acquisitions. 
-Address the growing number of contract protests. 
-Break down the two bodies of government acquisition — defense agencies and civilian agencies — by having them use the same definitions and approaches to contracting. 
-Focus on the acquisition workforce. Train contracting officers, contracting officer’s technical representatives and program managers to improve the overall procurement process, from solicitation to contract closeout.

Government officials say they weren’t out to surprise anyone, but technology companies didn’t like being closed off from the initial developments of the site. Contractors, a key constituency of Apps.gov, want to be included in programs that affect how they sell their products to agencies. Contractors say they expect openness and collaboration from an administration that touts those concepts.

It’s a suggestion that industry executives say Daniel Gordon, the nominee for administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, should keep in mind. Openness would create a strong working relationship.

“There’s nothing like saying, ‘What do you think?’” said Bob Woods, former Federal Technology Service commissioner at the General Services Administration and now president of Topside Consulting.

Once his nomination is confirmed, Gordon will have a lot of issues boiling, including strengthening the acquisition workforce and implementing President Barack Obama’s contracting reform memo. At the same time, he will have a lot of stakeholders asking for a few minutes to chat. In particular, industry is hoping for some face time with the new administrator to get a read on what’s to come.

An OFPP administrator's first actions are important because they will send a message to the technology and government acquisition communities about priorities, Woods said.

“Once people can categorize you, then they can marginalize you,” he said.

OFPP has already been marginalized in one way. Woods said the office is seen as “a haven for policy wonks,” high aloft in the New Executive Office Building. Referring to his GSA days, he said acquisition policy-makers often are typecasted as “gray-suited bureaucrats. They're process-oriented people who don’t really care about the bottom line. They just want the forms filled out right.”

Gordon can override such stereotypes by getting out in front of the IT and acquisition communities, speaking at events, and listening to what industry considers important to improving procurement.

People will want to listen to the administrator. Acquisition and government contracting is expected to receive a lot of attention and undergo reforms during the Obama administration. A March 4 presidential memo outlines what contracting should look like under the Obama administration. The memo describes four areas that need work:

  • Increasing competition for contracts.
  • Using appropriate types of contracts, with a strong preference for fixed-price contracts.
  • Building the acquisition workforce.
  • Clarifying inherently governmental duties.

Down the street from the White House, Congress continues to drive the changes it wants to procurement. In hearings, congressional committees that are dedicated to contracting oversight have put contractors into the spotlight, showcasing examples of fraud and waste.

But industry representatives say Gordon needs to counter such tactics and show a more realistic picture of contractor activity.

There’s a big challenge though, said Jeff Shen, vice president at Red Team Consulting.

“Federal reforms and acquisition changes are already occurring. How does a new OFPP administrator enact changes of his own when Congress and other high-level federal officials are making suggestions and already turning them into actual policies?”

He said he hopes the OFPP administrator would have some input in determining the direction of policy. Shen’s outlook isn’t that positive though.

The administrator “may not have the power or authority to exact the type of reform that he or she wants. Scary thought, I guess.”

When Gordon takes office, he needs to address the issues of the acquisition workforce and contractor accountability, Shen said, adding that they are closely related. Agencies need to improve their management oversight, but the workforce needs to be properly staffed and trained to do the work.

Many of the newer reforms and topics of interest involve competition, source selection, contract requirements and task-order competitions. However, few people focus on post-award contract management, Shen said.

Esther Burgess, senior vice president and deputy chief operating officer of Vistronix, an IT services company, added that agencies need to bring their contracting officers, program managers and contracting officer’s technical representatives together to manage the entire contract process from solicitation to closeout.

Although many people say the president’s memo will be the administrator's focus, others say emerging trends also will affect procurement.

For example, one of the Obama administration’s main innovators, Vivek Kundra, the federal chief information officer, is already rocking the boat. Described by one procurement expert as a “cowboy,” Kundra is changing how the government deals with data and improving agencies’ performance. He also is attempting to streamline the acquisition process with Apps.gov.

“Vivek has the winds in his sail because he’s a visionary,” said Jaime Gracia, vice president of federal services at Concepts and Strategies, a strategic communications company.

Kundra announced Apps.gov and is putting cloud computing and other applications at agencies’ fingertips. Apps.gov is a new storefront for IT products and services already offered through GSA’s Schedule 70 contracts. GSA plans to award a blanket purchase agreement for cloud IT services, and officials are evaluating bids now.

People are finding out that Apps.gov is simply a prettier version of GSA Advantage, the vintage online shopping mall.

“When you go behind the curtain, the same acquisition process is in your face,” Gracia said.

Experts say improving the same old process is another tough challenge for the administrator. Despite all the innovation, Gracia said officials shouldn’t miss the root problem of procurement when it comes to technology: “the glacial pace of acquisition.”

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