Former OFPP officials say government in state of 'paralysis'

Friday - 7/27/2012, 5:24pm EDT

By Keith BieryGolick
Special to Federal News Radio

Convoluted oversight regulations, too many multiple-award contracts and a lack of top-down support has put the federal government in a state of paralysis when it comes to acquisitions, one former procurement official said Thursday at the Multiple Award Government and Industry Conference.

Deidre Lee, now the executive director of compliance at the Fluor Corporation and a former head of federal and Defense acquisition, said it takes too long to get things done in today's oversight-heavy world. The costs in time and money to redo procurement is causing agencies to move slower, not faster, as Congress intended multiple-award contracts to do when they created them 20 years ago.

"Back in the old days, when I was PCO [procurement contracting officer] , someone would come and ask me [about a contract] and I'd go 'yep,' 'nope,' 'write the letter.' Boom, we're done, decision, let's go," Lee said.

The amount of effort it takes to go through required review procedures might also derail the real goal of the contract, said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive office for the Professional Services Council, an industry association, and former senior Defense Department acquisition official.

"I don't want to turn this into a whine session," he said. "I think you can tie that to the more you do all of those things, the further you get away from the customer and the customers need."

Another problem hurting acquisitions is an overreliance on multiple-award contracts (MACs), Lee said.

Has government lost its edge on MACs?

Congress originally introduced MACs to cut costs and time-to-award by simplifying the buying process. But a recent Bloomberg Government study shows the amount of contract dollars spent under multiple-award contracts actually doubled since fiscal 2006 to more than $83 billion in 2011.

Lee said the government lost its edge on MACs, but believes there is a simple solution. "If I was back in the government I'd be writing a good old [full and open] contract. I'd want straight-out, flat, hard competition, select a winner and get on with your life," she said.

There probably are too many multiple-award vehicles, said Robert Burton, a former deputy administrator with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, who now is an attorney with the Venable law firm. "But I think the greater challenge is the number of task orders issued in each vehicle."

Because of the number of task orders issued, Burton said awards lack competition. "I think it is because of the proliferation of task order procurements," he said.

But former OFPP administrator Allan Burman didn't agree with Burton about the amount of competition for contracts.

"Some of the data suggests we actually have a higher percentage of awards that are actually competitive with multiple bidders than we've had in many, many years," he said. "What I'm hearing anecdotally from our folks in the membership is that competition is fierce — they've never seen it this high."

Burton said there is less money available, and people are more hungry to get it. However, numbers can lie, he said.

"My feeling is that competition is not robust. There are many task orders that are awarded where there is 'competition,' but 'I've already decided who I am going to select and I'll pad the record to show there was competition," he said.

Lack of support for acquisition personnel

Beyond MACs, Stoloway said overall there is a lack of support for federal employees.

"There's been an utter lack of leadership for the acquisition community for close to a decade," he said. "I'm talking about people who are telling the workforce they have their back, people who are willing to stand up for them when things go south, so they are utterly disincentivized to take any chances."

Burman said the government attempted to put someone in the position of Chief Acquisition Officer who would do just that, "but if you look across the government, there is maybe one or two agencies that has a functioning CAO."

In fact, the Government Accountability Office released a report Thursday that found 13 out of 16 civilian agencies appointed a CAO, but only three functioned in acquisitions as their primary duty.

Moving forward, less money will be available — whether sequestration happens or not — and these experts say the government must improve how it writes its requests for proposals to maximize the available resources.

Burton said every case that he is involved with now relates to that procurement document.