Procurement Reform…or just lip service.

I read a great article by Lurita Doan on procurement reform.  President Obama promised in his campaign to tackle this issue but it has not happened as of yet.  I know the man has a lot on his plate and it is still early in his presidency so we will keep our fingers crossed.  Mrs. Doan is a conservative commentator and we remain fiercely independent here at PrepFire but I thought her article had enough merit to justify passing it on.  Sadly it was left up to this administration to reform the procurement process when it should have been taken care of years ago under the previous administration.

Obama Opts Out of Procurement Reform

By Lurita Doan

The big news on procurement turns out to be no news at all.  Several months after President Obama raised expectations, his Office of Management and Budget (OMB) produced a plan on procurement reform that has no teeth. OMB seems out of touch with many of the challenges facing federal procurement professionals and, indirectly, continues the Obama Administration’s assault on small businesses.

The Procurement Reform cabal is a microcosm of what’s wrong within the Obama Administration. While well-intentioned, in their zeal to try to please all the people all the time, they overpromise and under-deliver.

During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama cited procurement reform, as a critical element in managing the growing federal deficit, as a protection against waste, and as an essential element in the accountability and “unprecedented transparency” that he intended to make the hallmark of his Administration.

However, there is a massive disconnect between the good intentions, the soaring rhetoric, and the actual results. Meaningful procurement reform now seems just another broken dream on the heap of ideological rubble piling up outside the Obama White House, suffocating acquisition professionals and dooming small businesses to the crumbs of government procurement.

Expectations were raised when President Obama signed a memo to all Executive Agency heads, that OMB would be issuing guidance to stop the rise of no-bid, sole source contracts, define the appropriate use of oversight, assist with acquisition workforce issues and clarify the limits of outsourcing.

OMB issued requests for information and spoke convincingly about “actionable plans” for all levels of acquisition personnel. Most government customers, government contractors and federal procurement professionals seemed to be in agreement (at least privately) that the system was broken, that contracting officers were overworked, that oversight had gone into “gotcha” mode and that “best value” was becoming an impossible dream.

Unfortunately, OMB’s guidance contained no noticeable reforms and was an odd, hodge-podge of historical data and charts, most of which was cribbed from previous reports issued by FAI in 2008 and 2007, by the Services Acquisition Advisory Panel (SARA) panel in January of 2007 and by GAO in December 2007 on the dwindling acquisition work force.

In other words, despite countless hundreds of man hours, countless statements from the Obama Administration on procurement reform, and countless Congressional testimonies citing this famed action plan as the road map forward, what OMB issued was 19 pages of old, boilerplate ideas, confirming the suspicion that the Obama Administration is not serious about procurement reform.

Chief among the problems are:

  • Who really wrote the plan? Currently, there is no senate-confirmed Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the President’s authority on all issues related to procurement (Daniel Gordon, the nominee, was only nominated twenty days ago).
  • One of the few new ideas in the report, though perhaps unintentional, seems to call for a bifurcation of procurement policy and creates two classes of procurement systems: one for civilian agencies and one for DoD. What up with that? Do we really need two systems, with two, different sets of guidelines?
  • Why is no effort made to address issues relating to procurement, oversight and the “gotcha” environment, that pollute the procurement process and cost American taxpayers billions, even though President Obama directed OMB to do so?
  • Why was no effort made to discuss the “no-bid” and sole source contracting that awarded billions of dollars of Stimulus funding to large government contractors, ensuring that small businesses were shut out of the stimulus, and propose concrete solutions?

The OMB acquisition memo waxes enthusiastic about expanding internship programs to “grow” the next generation of contracting professionals. Great idea! The SARA Panel felt the same way. So did DoD, GSA, DHS and NASA which instituted acquisition internship and training programs, such as FAI and DAU contractor certifications and the like several years ago. Looks to me like the best idea that OMB has on procurement was actually developed and begun in previous Administrations. Hardly the sweeping reform that President Obama promised many months ago!

OMB’s plan is troubling because it will not only delay meaningful reforms, but it will actually add to the problems within the federal procurement system. More than anything else, federal contracting officers needed some help administering the nearly one trillion dollars in federal contracting. Too few federal contracting officers are responsible for way too much federal funding.

OMB’s plan adds more requirements for federal contracting officers, making a bad situation even worse. Remarkably, OMB even creates three, new “Functional Advisory Boards” that will add yet another layer of bureaucracy to a system already teetering under the weight of too many differing and conflicting programmatic reviews.

Peter Drucker, the business management guru, said: “if you’re meeting, you’re not working”, and the one, sure, result of OMB’s new policies on federal procurement is that there will be LOTS of meetings.

The problem is that when contracting personnel get additional reporting requirements, they have less time to process contracts, which means they often need to bundle several, smaller efforts (that might have been competed and won by small businesses) into larger, omnibus tasks that can be awarded quickly, and with little competition, to larger businesses.

The business of government has to get done, and the contracting officer has to do the best he or she can with their limited resources.

Don’t blame the President on this one — his memo and his intentions were clear. The President even delegated the task appropriately, except that the person to whom he delegated the task doesn’t yet exist in the federal system.  So, there you have it: yet another program, well-intentioned, but poorly executed.

If the Obama Administration can’t accomplish, effectively, the simple tasks required for procurement reform and prevention of government waste, how likely are they to accomplish procurement’s difficult tasks such as cutting non-performing programs and saying “NO” to Congress’ voracious appetite for pork?

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