Despite the Obama administration’s goal of bringing agencies and vendors closer together through the mythbusters campaign, evidence of a wider gulf between the two is growing.
The Government Accountability Office reported more contract bid protests were filed in fiscal 2011 than in any time since 1995.
Agency use of suspension and debarment increased by more than 200 in 2010, according to a report issued this summer by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to Congress. Last year, the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee (ISDC) found departments suspended 612 vendors and debarred 1,651 contractors, up 150 from 2009, and proposed 1,945 companies for debarment, an increase of almost 1,200 over the year before.
Additionally, agencies are coming under pressure from Congress and the White House to be even more aggressive in debarring or suspending vendors who break the rules. The White House recently issued a new policy requiring agencies to take specific steps over the next year, including appointing a senior official responsible for “assessing the agency’s suspension and debarment program, including the adequacy of available training and resources,” and reviewing internal practices to ensure that potential contractors and grant recipients have the requisite business integrity.
Congress also conducted two recent hearings on suspension and debarment. Just last week., during a House Veterans Affairs Committee hearing on the service-disabled veteran-owned small business and veteran-owned small business certification program, lawmakers pressed Veterans Affairs Department officials about why they had not suspended or debarred more companies who said they were a part of the socio-economic contracting group, but in the end were not.
Both sides are aggressively staking out their ground instead of coming closer together to solve the government’s problems.
GAO resolves fewer bid protests
The 2010 bid protest report helps continue to build the case. It shows GAO ended up making a decision on 417 cases, sustaining 67 or 16 percent of them. A vast majority of the cases are solved either by the agency withdrawing their award and agreeing to fix the situation, or the vendor deciding not to pursue the case after GAO’s initial review.
Bid Protests through the years:
1995 … 2,529
1996 … 2,286
1997 … 1,852
1998 … 1,566
1999 … 1,399
2000 … 1,220
2001 … 1,146
2002 … 1,204
2003 … 1,352
2004 … 1,485
2005 … 1,356
2006 … 1,327
2007 … 1,411
2008 … 1,652
2009 … 1,989
2010 … 2,299
2011 … 2,353
GAO said 140 cases went to alternative dispute resolution, down from 159 in 2010 and 149 in 2009.
OFPP’s goal with the mythbuster’s campaign is to dispel some commonly hold notions that agencies and vendors can’t communicate or work more closely together to develop acquisition requirements. Agencies submitted a communications plan to OMB last June on how they would reduce barriers, publicize communication opportunities, and prioritize engagement opportunities for high-risk, complex programs or those that fail to attract new vendors during recompetitions.
But preliminary results of a Federal News Radio survey of chief acquisition officers and senior procurement executives show a mix of opinions about the mythbusters campaign. The results currently are evenly split among the three choices about its impact: it is making a difference, it is not making a difference and it’s too early to tell whether it will make a difference.
Mythbusters falling short?
The increased use of suspension and debarments could be seen as an example of agencies and vendors not taking the mythbusters campaign to heart. While OFPP launched the campaign in 2011 and the results were from 2010, the Obama administration long has been taking a two-path approach: increasing oversight while promoting more communication between agencies and vendors.
A recent example of the mythbusters campaign falling short is when the Air Force decided in October to suspend three companies — Iron Bow; Advanced C4 Solutions of Warner Robbins, Ga.; and Superior Communications Solutions Inc. of Moultrie, Ga. — over a disagreement of whether the companies allegedly violated conflict of interest rules and the fulfillment of the contract that followed.
The Air Force’s suspension prohibited Iron Bow, Advanced C4 Solutions and Superior Communications from winning any new contracts for almost a month as the parties negotiated a resolution.
The Air Force last week reinstated all three companies. A spokesman for the service declined to comment on why the Air Force lifted the suspension.
One unnamed source close to the situation said the companies and their attorneys negotiated with the Air Force to address each and every question or issue the Air Force raised in their suspension complaint. The source said based on the responses of the companies the Air Force terminated the proposed debarment.
The Air Force, like many companies, jumped to the far end of the spectrum and suspended the companies instead of taking on the spirit and intent of the mythbusters and solving the dispute through better communication. It took a suspension and proposed debarment for the two sides to find a resolution.
Procurement experts don’t expect the environment to improve any time soon. With expected budget cuts to agency discretionary spending in 2012 and beyond and the push for more strategic sourcing, vendors are fighting for every piece of the procurement pie. And agencies knowing companies are more apt to protest when they are shut out of a large acquisition — whether it’s VA’s $12 billion T4 IT services contract or the request for proposals for a new blanket purchase agreement the General Services Administration recently issued for wireless devices and wireless plans — are less likely to take risks, which also means talking to vendors more often.
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.