Resistance to talking with contractors runs deep

In an era of deep budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty, the need for communication and collaboration between government and industry has never been greater but the resistance on the part of agency officials runs deep.

"Can we talk?"

Ask a government contractor the most common response they get to that question from their contracting officers, and a disturbing number of them will tell you the answer is “No.”

But the answer doesn’t just apply to government-industry communications. In fact, one of the most significant findings of the recently released 2013 PSC Leadership Commission report was that our government colleagues freely acknowledge that not only is communication and collaboration between government and industry at low ebb, but so too is the essential collaboration among various functional elements of the government, in particular acquisition and technology.

I don’t think a week goes by that we don’t receive a request for assistance from a member company that is struggling to get a customer to engage in routine dialogue; not about an active procurement but, rather, an existing contract or activity.

One company reported to me that it is in the process of renegotiating its GSA Schedule contract and was  informed by the contracting officer that they “no longer talk directly with contractors.” 

How is one supposed to negotiate, discuss, share information and perspective, and arrive at a mutually beneficial agreement with that kind of wall? It’s simple. You can’t.

Some attribute the lack of communication and collaboration to what is perceived as a generally negative attitude toward contractors emanating from the administration.

To be sure, there have been more than a few occasions when such unfortunate commentary has been expressed. But, that said, the Office of Management and Budget, through its “Mythbusters” campaign, and top acquisition officials at the Defense Department, Homeland Security Department and elsewhere, have all stressed the need to enhance, not limit, communications. 

So the leadership’s recent language has been the right language. Unfortunately, as former Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Dan Gordon said just prior to his departure from office, resistance in the field to open communications remains strong.

Meanwhile, during the PSC Commission’s work, a number of government officials—including chief acquisition officers and chief information officers—expressed growing concern about the disconnects between their communities.

“Contracting has taken over the world” said one CIO. “So in the end it’s all about process rather than the outcomes we’re really seeking.” 

And contracting professionals will tell you they increasingly feel left out of the business and requirements planning process, which in turn makes it ever more difficult to develop a truly responsive acquisition strategy.

This lack of communications and collaboration is not a new issue. It has ebbed and flowed over the years. But in this era of deep budget cuts and fiscal uncertainty, it is inconceivable that any degree of efficiency and optimization can be achieved without more engagement across internal functional lines and between the government and its suppliers.

So what can be done?

One recommendation of the PSC Commission holds particular relevance and potential here. That is that each agency’s leaders—at the component or organizational level—require all of their program offices to immediately commence a collaborative process with their contractors and other stakeholders, including the end users, designed to identify sustainable savings in their programs.

Specific targets could also be set as well as an admonition that the cost savings identified reflect the shared nature of the budget challenge. Simply cutting a contractor’s margins or demanding the same deliverable for a lower price is not a healthy path.

But jointly identifying requirements that can be eliminated or non-value added processes, and more, would be healthy, even if it means slightly reduced revenue for a company or a changed requirement for the government.

In addition to helping agencies deal with the continued budget crunch, such a collaborative process could do a lot to build mutual trust and the kind of partnership that is considered a hallmark of excellence throughout the business world.

The best part is that all of this can be done without legislation or a change in regulation. It can all be done well while fully adhering to procurement integrity and overall ethics.

What does it take?

Leadership. And a willingness to talk.

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