Contractors urged to show no fear when doing business with VA

Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould is dealing with 26-percent vacancy rate in procurement staff

Contractors doing business with the Veterans Affairs Department must show no fear if the procurement system is to work properly, said W. Scott Gould, VA's deputy secretary.

Gould is using a “corporate approach” to improve VA’s acquisition processes, which means “open communication, vigorous debate and willingness to dissent,” he said.

Too often vendors may fear being “blackballed” if they raise a significant problem with a government acquisition executive. But that “fear of being blamed” is a force that can hold back needed reforms, he said.

His comments were part of the VA Supplier Relationship Transformation Forum held Thursday in Arlington, Va. The agency spends about $19 billion a year with contractors.

The VA wants to become more like a corporation that will “manage for results,” use enterprise approaches and align acquisition with mission outcomes, Gould said.

For example, rather than having individual hospitals purchase equipment such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging systems, which results in a hodgepodge of products, the goal might be to combine all the MRI contracts into a single enterprise contract.

“A bureaucracy like the VA can be run as successfully as the finest companies in America,” Gould said.

The VA is also using integrated product teams and working on a strategic approach to information technology acquisitions. The department wants to name an assistant secretary for acquisition logistics and construction. The VA is thinking about the possibility of inviting winning vendors to come in to discuss the terms of the contract and to do team building immediately after the contract award, Gould said.

With more emphasis on procuring a mix of products and services in recent years, acquisition has become more complex and collaborative, Gould said. That increases the need for metrics for measuring performance and a more comprehensive approach to managing acquisitions.

Acquisition decisions will still be distributed among a large number of executives, but there will be more guidance from a central office, he said.

Other challenges VA faces include a 26-percent vacancy rate in its acquisition staff.

To reverse the vacancy rate, the VA is hiring 350 procurement specialists and investing in training and certification, including with the VA Acquisition Academy in Frederick, Md., he said.

“For decades, federal civil-service employees were viewed as costs. We need to view them as investments,” Gould said. “We have not done a great job of making this a career that people will think of when they get out of graduate school.”

Due to the high rate of vacancies, federal acquisition experts are doing more work with less assistance, causing “a negative, if not toxic, work environment,” he added.

The event is part of a series of activities being conducted to support the VA’s transformation for the 21st century that includes an overhaul of the agency's acquisition structure and its supplier relationships. With a budget of $97.7 billion for fiscal 2009, the VA serves about 23 million veterans.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

Reader Comments

Sat, Aug 15, 2009 Observer R

Monsieur. Gould was well kwon for his procurement, er, posture at DOC and later with Navy elements he worked in, between jobs, as a reserve officer. He had a bit of a rep of closing the door and suggesting to the contractor to slough off the contract in force and instead "do what really needs to be done," which tended to equate to what he wanted to be done. Obviously a talented fella, who we have to assume means well and thinks he's workin in the government's interest, he just warrants a bit of caution when he is talking contracts with your company.

Fri, Aug 14, 2009

Amen to the first commenter. It's obvious that Mr. Gould doesn't know what he's talking about when it comes to medical equipment purchases. As a VA Biomedical Engineer, we know that buying one model of MRI for the VA will lead to disaster for the local hospitals. Decisions must be based upon clinical needs and almost as importantly, support availability. Forcing a specific MRI on a rural hospital, when support is 4 hours away, vs. another with support 1 hour away severly compromises patient care. Despite the politicos in headquarters fantasies, one size does not fit all.

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 VA Small Buisiness Vendor

I was encouraged to see this statement in the article: "Gould is using a “corporate approach” to improve VA’s acquisition processes, which means “open communication, vigorous debate and willingness to dissent,” he said." Mr. Gould, please make sure your approach of willing open communication is driven down to your VA contracting officers and specialists. It would be very refreshing to be able to engage in professional-level debate and discussion (let's simply call it a logical business discussion) about contract clauses, terms and conditions with your procurement staff. Thanks in advance.

Fri, Aug 14, 2009 Jon Weiss Radcliff, KY

The article states that an Enterprise buy may can be better that individual purchases, for the VA as well as private business. This is very true provided that the people doing the buying know what the customers needs and desires truly are. my wife works for a retailer whos products are purchased at a coprporate HQ and then pushed down to the stores. This often results in her having to try to sell people crap that they have no use for and really cannot afford. So if the VA is going to go to a system of buying enmasse, when it comes to MRI equipment, they had better make sure that the people making the buying decisions know the needs and desires of each individual hospital before making their mass buys.

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