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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

Is the government sending mixed signals about collaborating with industry?

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.

Posted by Nick Wakeman on Feb 03, 2011 at 9:34 AM

Reader Comments

Tue, Feb 8, 2011 Edmond Hennessy United States

Mixed signals? How about mass chaos? It's a funny thing (that means odd) how things evolve. Remember the Perry Initiative so long ago? Well, once the mandate settled-in, it was clear that Government/Military, Industry Contractors and Technology firms needed to be better aligned and collaborate for the Initiative to gain momentum and acceptance. That took about a decade and a half to be assimilated and work effectively. It still has warts! Take the 2nd ride - outsourcing - and look at the motives and drivers for that Industry push - only to discover that the rules changed again - with the emphasis on Insourcing. Gees - can anyone get it right? Or, is this simply going to be a continuous tilt-a-whirl ride that morphs in each Administration? How about taking the best of Insourcing - and Outsourcing and the raw capabilities of the Government Machine and Industry Specialists - and give them the freedom and support to just do the right thing - based on the task at hand?

Tue, Feb 8, 2011 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Sen. McCaskill’s well-meaning, but completely unproductive rhetoric does exacerbate the perceived adversarial relationship between government and industry. What is badly needed is more, not less, collaboration between contracting officials and industry to create better opportunities for successful acquisition outcomes. Poor requirements, cost overruns, and underperforming program are the status quo, and a major cause is the current state of poor communications. How can reform initiatives be taken seriously when important factors that can help lead to successful government management are seen as an impediment and conflict of interest?

Tue, Feb 8, 2011

Contracting Officers manage contracts, they do not collaborate. Collaboration would be between workers on the project.
I too would hope that the contracting office would not be collaborating with the contractor -- that would be fox guarding the henhouse, no?

Tue, Feb 8, 2011 Interested Party

Right or wrong, the message is being interpreted by COs as Congress saying, "Go ahead and communicate with contractors if you wish, but we'll be sending legions of auditors to crucify you for doing it." Is it coincidence that these two conflicting messages come out at the same time? Someone said, "There is no such thing as coincidence." Is there really any doubt why these messages paralyze any efforts to move closer to private sector practices?

Fri, Feb 4, 2011 Marcelle Green

Sen. McCaskill seems to imply that government agencies and the contractors they hire are adversaries. But don't both parties essentially want the same thing: a working contract? And doesn't it help both parties to understand the other party's point of view? I believe agencies get better contracts when they understand what the contractor has to do to satisfy that contract, and vice versa.

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