Agencies should not fear talking to contractors

Columnist Steve Kelman writes that communication between government and industry is key to saving money and and preventing misunderstandings in contract language.

Back in 1993 when I attended my first Executive Leadership Conference sponsored by the Industry Advisory Council, the theme was the plaintive question “Can We Talk?” In those dreary days, the accepted wisdom was that informal communication between government and contractors before a request for proposals was issued was dangerous, fraught with risks of favoritism and suitable only in highly regulated meetings contractors attended en masse for the opportunity to ask questions, which nobody ever did for fear of revealing information competitors could use.

During the 1990s, the dominant view changed. An important reason to work with contractors in the first place is the fact that they have knowledge the government doesn’t. When government doesn’t take advantage of that knowledge before issuing an RFP, it loses. Failure to get early, honest feedback results in many misunderstandings in contract language, which bedevil contracts after they are signed and lead to disappointments or even litigation. In addition, lack of pre-RFP communication often leads to requirements that are unnecessarily expensive to meet but could have been made more economical with small changes.

A recent article in Contract Management, which is published by the National Contract Management Association for professionals in government and industry who are involved in contracting, noted that some agencies’ legal or ethics officials have “concluded that contracting personnel in their agency or office should err on the side of caution and not be an active participant in NCMA activities.” That attitude reflects a return to the older, dysfunctional view of government/industry communications.

NCMA has proposed guidelines to the Office of Government Ethics and the Defense Department’s Standards of Conduct Office. Those two offices responded with slightly mealy mouthed language that seemed to say they endorsed NCMA’s approach but couldn’t endorse it.

The proposed guidelines state that it is acceptable for agency officials to actively participate in NCMA activities — including making presentations at events and serving on advisory boards — so long as such participation is “in a personal capacity acting exclusively outside the scope of their official position” (whatever that means) and that “they are invited to participate…because of their expertise or years of experience and not because of their current job” (however one would know this). There’s some unfortunate stuff about asking for permission to use government e-mail accounts to publicize local NCMA events, but all in all, it reflects a wise move back from the no-communication brink.

With good leadership from Jeff Zients, chief performance officer at the Office of Management and Budget, who has an industry background, and Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the time is ripe for turning around the mood of the past few years. Indeed, we should take government/industry communications to the next level. In my view, that means giving evaluation credit to bidders who have proposed pre-RFP improvements in agency requirements that will save the government money or reduce misunderstandings about what the government requires.

Let’s use government/industry communication for the benefit of agency missions and taxpayers.

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