The impossible challenge of managing 40,000 procurement specialists

Lesley Field, the government's top acquisition officer, talks about the challenge of communicating with 40,000 procurement specialists across government.

NOTE: This Q&A first appeared on FCW.com.

Since 2008, Lesley Field has been the deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, but she's served several stints as acting administrator between political appointees. She's led OFPP since Anne Rung left in 2016, and the Trump administration apparently isn't in any rush to fill the post on a permanent basis.

Field, the 2017 winner of FCW's President's Award, spoke with Mark Rockwell on the sidelines of an acquisition conference hosted by FCW.

FCW: Talk about the current federal contracting climate.

FIELD: It seems to be one of innovation and trying new ways of doing business. I see a lot of appetite out there for taking risks, calculated risks and bringing our industry partners along. I do feel a shift around that.

FCW: You mentioned giving agencies cover to take acquisition risks. The Department of Homeland Security took a risk with its Flexible Agile Support for the Homeland contract. That effort was abandoned after some difficulties. DHS leadership stepped forward and took responsibility for the vehicle's shortcomings. How much freedom to fail do smaller agencies have for that kind of approach to contract innovation?

FIELD: DHS has an important mission. If [Chief Procurement Officer] Soraya Correa and her team can make it work over there, it's a great lesson for all of us so that we have encouragement and impetus for all agencies.

FCW: How much does it take for a small agency to do the same thing?

FIELD: Honestly, I think that the magic there is learning the lessons quickly, being able to distill them into something that the workforce can understand and communicate, communicate, communicate -- so they can get that this is something they should be doing. They know where to go to get more information. I think one of the great things Soraya did was make sure that the front line contracting folks could go directly to the [Procurement Innovation] Lab. They could make that decision without going through [upper] management. That empowers the front line people to innovate. We've stood up the Acquisition Innovation Advocates Council, which gives structure and framework to this kind of thing.

It's the work at the agencies. It's communicating what works, what didn't, who did it, what happened, then communicating with industry that things are going to be different. We're looking to communicate with you in modern ways. It's the holistic approach.

FCW: What is In Reach?

A: The In Reach effort is just an OFPP organic effort to reach the front line folks. There are 40,000 contracting officers out there, and we want to make sure we hear from them and that they've got the tools and resources that they need to be innovative to use category management solutions, to increase small business purchasing, all of the things that we've put out, we need to have tools and training and resources for the workforce to use in order to implement.

We might be good at getting the policies out, but we need to double down on getting the tools and all the information to the folks actually doing it, instead of filtering through the bureaucracy. We think there's real value in reaching out beyond the beltway and from people we don't usually hear from. So this is an effort to broaden that reach.

FCW: Is your office planning any guidance on Other Transaction Authority?

FIELD: There is a prescribed set of authorities for agencies to use OTAs. I don't think we'd be expanding that necessarily. However, I think we are looking for good stories about how they are used. When it makes sense, when it doesn't make sense and what the results were. I think that theme of storytelling is also something we're trying to ramp up this year -- making sure we tell stories people can relate to. Otherwise it's just a lot of information that's not relatable.

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