Is the government sending mixed signals about collaborating with industry?

Contracting officers are getting pulled in opposite directions by OMB and Congress, writes Editor Nick Wakeman.

Pity the poor contracting officer.

One hand you have the Office of Management and Budget pushing for greater collaboration between government and industry. Then you have Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) admonishing contracting officers for getting what she says is “too friendly” with contractors.

“Contracting officers have an ongoing relationship with the contractors that sometimes impact their ability to see everything clearly as it relates to some of the behavior of the contractors,” said McCaskill, chairwoman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee's Contracting Oversight Subcommittee.

Another quote from a recent hearing: “There’s just a fine line between cooperation and being co-opted,” she said.

In other words, if a contracting officer talks to industry, then you can’t be trusted, according to McCaskill.

McCaskill comments come at the same time the White House and OMB are pushing for more collaboration. OMB Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy Daniel Gordon has issued a “myth-busting” memo to encourage communications between government and industry.

Gordon wants contracting officers to communicate early and often with industry and the result should be better contracts. The memo is part of the OMB’s 25-step program to improve IT management and save the government $500 billion.

But McCaskill’s rhetoric fosters the current adversarial relationship between government and industry. Too often the perception is that talking to industry creates an inherent conflict of interest.

Her advocacy of relying on auditors, instead of contracting officers, just makes it worse.

The government and taxpayers would be better served by encouraging contracting officers to be tough negotiators and to remind them that to negotiate, you have to talk to the other side.