More debate about pre-RFP talks between government, industry

Blogger Steve Kelman responds to comments he received on a recent blog post about the sensitive nature of government-industry communications.

In this post, I would like to reflect on some of the interesting comments on my last post -- on pre-RFP communication between government and industry -- and return in my next post to issues and challenges in terms of creating IT technical expertise available to government to make it more possible for the government to be a smart buyer of complex IT solutions.

Let's start by going back to basics. First, none of the comments disagreed with OFPP Administrator Dan Gordon's observation that industry frequently sees an IT procurement going off track and, for whatever reason(s), doesn't tell the government what it knows/feels/suspects. Can we agree -- without worrying about apportioning blame -- that this is a problem?

Second, in my experience it is a relatively common occurrence that after contract (or task order) award, government and the contractor have problems (sometimes ending up in court) because of differing interpretation of language in an RFP and the resulting contract. If more could be done to deal with even a portion of these problems upfront, the government would avoid many painful problems later on. At a minimum, it would be a good thing if industry informed the government about any possible confusion in the wording of an RFP and solicited clarification. I am guessing this happens sometimes, but far from always.

Finally, let us remember one of the reasons government contracts out activities in the first place: To take advantage of specialized knowledge and outside insights about what they are buying. So it would be a good thing -- and this is the purpose behind a lot of the customer-vendor communications occurring in IT contracting inside the private sector -- if the government were able to gain from industry any insights into its requirements. For example, if the government sets an availability requirement of 99.9 percent, and vendors could shave 25 percent off the price if the availability requirement went down to 99.5 percent, vendors should let the government know that.

But those talks should not include approaches to meeting the requirements -- that is for the proposal, and should be a subject of competition among bidding vendors, rather than something shared pre-RFP with the government.

Conclusion: pre-RFP government-industry communication, including in one-on-one settings (often the only venue where vendors will speak openly), is an important part of improving the IT acquisition process. This view, incidentally, was specifically endorsed and acknowledged when Part 15 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation was rewritten in 1997.

Of the comments on my last post, the one that disturbed me the most was the suggestion that many government officials are afraid of communicating with industry for fear of violating organizational conflict of interest rules. This one wanted to make me cry.

OCI rules are designed to deal with issues when a contractor paid to work on the requirements for the government also bids on doing the work. The procurement system is specifically designed to allow potential bidders to present unpaid input to the government on such issues before the RFP has come out. I know the contracting environment has become infected in the last few years, but the perception that OCI issues are involved here sounds like a gangrene threatening the life of the system. Dan Gordon, can OFPP make a pronouncement, or even a revision to the FAR, about this?

On the government's fear of giving away inside information, I would say that the dysfunctions caused by refusal to talk with industry one-on-one, which this fear creates, are serious enough that the government needs to take on this issue directly. How about one simple meeting for an hour or so before a series of one-on-one meetings with industry to discuss guidelines and things to be careful about not disclosing? Are we really going to accept a process that doesn't work because we fear we can't handle this issue like responsible adults?

On the observation by "govie" that industry sometimes seeks to sell the government a solution that corresponds to the firm's capabilities rather than the government's interests, this is indeed why the government needs to have technical knowledge at its disposal -- to separate the insightful wheat from the self-serving chaff (and of course there is a lot of chaff). This is a topic to which I will indeed return in my next post.