Lectern

By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Improving federal IT acquisitions

I attended a George Washington University Law School colloquium organized by Chris Yukins, a professor and one of two vice chairmen of a panel sponsored by IT industry trade association TechAmerica, called "Government Technology Opportunities for the 21st Century," which I co-chair together with Linda Gooden from Lockheed Martin. 

The purpose of the TechAmerica panel is to look at barriers and implementation approaches toward introducing a number of widely recommended suggestions for how government can improve the value IT projects deliver agencies and taxpayers.  The purpose of the colloquium was to bring together people from the legal community -- most in the audience appeared to be either students or faculty in the GWU contracts law program or government attorneys working on contracting -- to talk about contracting issues that are relevant to the panel's work.

Early in the conversation, Dan Gordon, on the panel as the administrator of the federal Office of Federal Procurement Policy, posed an important question in a very interesting way.  He asked:  "I am guessing that many in industry know when they read an RFP [request for proposals] that the government is putting out to bid a program that is likely to fail.  Yet I am also guessing that industry seldom says this to the government.  What can we do to change this?"

This was a fascinating question and generated a good deal of interesting discussion. One audience member noted that frequently the people who comment for industry on requests for information (RFIs) or draft RFPs are capture managers who are not technical experts, and thus not in a position to understand technical or acquisition strategy problems with draft government documents. This relates to the issue of the separation between proposal writers and people who will actually do the work that I discussed in a blog post last week.

A long time ago I first made the suggestion that the government should announce upfront in a major procurement that it will give evaluation credit for helpful suggestions (as opposed to self-serving suggestions) from bidders during communications prior to RFP release for ways the government could save money by changing its specs/performance requirements, or for pointing out mistakes or ambiguities in draft language.  (It would be helpful for the government to know when there was debate inside a company about what the government meant by some of its language.)  I have been pushing this idea literally for two decades but, alas, still haven't gotten a single agency to try it out.

Undaunted by my earlier failure, I made another suggestion.  Why doesn't the government announce early on in pre-RFP communication stage that any company that wishes to bid on the contract or task order must make available one or more technical people to provide comments/suggestions on technical or contracting strategy issues in the draft document?

When I suggested this, there were two comments.  One was that no company ever wants to tell a customer that an approach they are pursuing is wrong.  I've heard that view before, and surely there is something to it, but perhaps we need training for both sides to make the point that tough love here may be good from a long term perspective for the government program manager (who wants a failed and/or contentious program?) and hence should be a plus, not a black eye, for a vendor to point out problems.  Additionally, I just discussed the phenomenon of "escalation of commitment" in my management class today (placed into an escalation of commitment situation, two students ended up paying $190 each in an auction to buy a $20 bill), and it is yet another argument for early communication between government and industry that it is easier for government to accept suggestions at an early, draft stage than later on in a project, when commitment levels are higher.

A second comment was that often the government's technical expertise is so weak that the government folks are not even in a position to tell whether a technical suggestion from industry is sensible or merely self-serving.  That is a serious issue, to which I will return in my next post.

Meanwhile, reactions and comments?

 

Posted by Steve Kelman on Sep 23, 2010 at 7:26 PM


Reader Comments

Fri, Oct 8, 2010 Jaime Gracia jaimegracia@me.com

Contracting personnel, in addition to project and program managers, need to understand that the current process is not working. The fear of protest, possibly unethical behavior, or unknowingly giving away proprietary information (i.e. risk aversion) needs to change. If fears were the proven to be the case, the FAR would outright prohibit any exchanges with industry in the first place. Government personnel need to understand that programs fail at the beginning, due to poor acquisition planning and poorly defined requirements. Almost any Government Accountability Office report on acquisition failures will undoubtedly have these statements in the Executive Summary. What was the definition of madness again?

Tue, Oct 5, 2010 Dim Bulb Washington, DC

One major issue is: companies do not necessarily want to hand over their expert critiques to the government for free. Companies often find their top ideas used to fix a bad requirement--that is free consulting. They are giving away their ability to differentiate themselves from other firms that don't see the flaws and/or don't know how to solve them. Secondly, if companies were truly partners with the government, this would not be a problem. However, neither government nor contractors really want to be partners, in fact. If they were, they would accept the consequences together of bad outcomes, and the companies would make no money. No one has ever seen a government contract that reads remotely like a partnership agreement. Partnering is hackneyed, misleading, self-serving, and false in just about all its usages in the government contracting arena.

Thu, Sep 30, 2010 Lynn Ann

Government contracting officers and program managers are so busy that they really don't seem open to feedback. So,here's an idea... what if the Government piloted the idea of 'speed feedback' on RFPs. Companies that met a minimum level of qualification (e.g., in a 1-page document) were invited to 15-minute speed feedback sessions with the Government on a draft RFP. Companies would be required to bring the program manager or lead technical manager (not a capture or business development person) and would have to succinctly provide feedback. The Government would have a chance to ask questions. Companies that provided good insights could then even be invited back for more in-depth discussions. This would be faster and more valuable than the anonymous questions-and-answers via email where the Government doesn't understand the questions or provide valuable answers.

Mon, Sep 27, 2010 DC

Steve,You are corect that what's needed is the ability to have frank and honest "2 guys at the bar" discussions. Sadly most Government contracting folks fear ethics violations for giving away insider information. I agree that level of discussion should be possible once the draft RFP or RFI is issued. It is possible for the Government CO or program office to reach out to industry (especially to the trade associations) once the draft RFP or RFO has posted and seek to engage the "2 guys in a bar" discussion. I've used this method with some program management issues (float some trial balloons through trade associations) and have had great success. It is possible - it just taked creativity and playing outside our normally small box.

Mon, Sep 27, 2010

Both responses to your suggestion are accurate. We, as contractors, don't want to be in the position of suggesting to an agency that their pursuit position is incorrect. We never know who accesses those types of comments nor how they may react to suggestions to improve their position. The second suggestion is more prevalent than many expect. "Cut and paste" RFIs and Sources Sought requests generally include inadequacies, inconsistencies and contradictory pictures of the agency's true environment. These are indications that they technical invovlement necessary is absent or lacking and making suggestions as to how to correct these are often not received well. In addition, fear of OCI issues has reached a point where these same contracts people will not even talk with or accept input from industry well in advance of the solicitation release. Until contracting people understadn that the government encourages interaction with industry up to the release of a solicitation, these issues will not go away.

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