Industry fears 'chilling effect' in GSA review of acquisition managers

Thursday - 6/27/2013, 5:53pm EDT

Federal industry groups are worried the General Services Administration may go too far in clamping down on the role of acquisition managers in the procurement process following an inspector general's report earlier this month that uncovered improper interference.

In a June 4 report, the GSA IG chastised managers in the agency's Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) for going above the heads of contracting officers and altering contracts at the request of three large federal supply-schedule contractors.

As a result, GSA leadership placed at least one FAS employee on leave and undertook a sweeping review of procurement practices.

But industry groups are worried the pendulum is swinging too far in the other direction.

'Chilling effect' on managers' role?

In a letter to Tom Sharpe, the FAS commissioner, three groups — the Coalition for Government Procurement, the Professional Services Council and TechAmerica — wrote that restricting communication between managers and contractors could have a "chilling effect" on managers' role in the Multiple Award Schedules (MAS) program.

For example, the IG recommended that managers not interfere or intervene in the contracting process when requested to do so by contractors except in cases of serious misconduct. The IG also said when managers do step into the negotiations process, they should fully document all conversations and correspondence with contractor officials about specific contracts.

"The recommendations create a significant disincentive for managers to step in when their attention and expertise is needed to break through obstacles to successful negotiations," the groups' letter stated. And the high bar set for management to intervene "will inadvertently reduce appropriate GSA management oversight of procurement operations."

The recommendation for managers to refrain from engaging in the acquisition process except for serious misconduct "seems to be aimed exclusively at compliance, without regard to the business operations and customer service responsibilities of GSA and its management team," the letter stated.

And the stricter documentation of conversations between managers and contractors will likely result, in practice, in lower levels of communication between agencies and industry, which flies in the face of governmentwide initiatives such as Mythbusters, the groups argued.

GSA reviewing procurement process

Following the allegations from the IG's office, GSA's newly installed chief acquisition officer, Anne Rung, announced she would review all internal procurement policies at the agency.

Meanwhile, Tom Sharpe, the head of FAS, also said he would issue new instructions to his employees explaining the proper role of management in the procurement process.

But GSA officials are quick to stress that acquisition managers still have a vital role to play.

The recent IG report and the steps GSA now plans to take "should not be interpreted as an indication that there is to be zero management involvement in the activities of our contracting officers," a GSA spokeswoman told Federal News Radio earlier this month. "Managers are part of the team and need to ensure roles and responsibilities throughout the process are clearly defined."

The industry groups laid out a number of recommendations for GSA, including clarifying MAS pricing policies and bolstering training for contracting officers. The groups also suggested GSA develop an "escalation process" within FAS "aimed at developing creative resolutions to negotiation obstacles."

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