Commentary by Jeff Neal Founder of ChiefHRO.com & Senior Vice President, ICF International
This column was originally published on Jeff Neal’s blog, ChiefHRO.com, and was republished here with permission from the author.
One of the things bad guys used to do in crime movies was “put a contract out” on someone. Those contracts were not to buy something, they meant hiring someone to kill a person. I was reminded of that phrase when I read a Federal Times article quoting former Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Secretary Gates was discussing IT procurement in the Federal government and said “A sclerotic federal contracting system is not a good match for the fast-evolving information world.”
His concerns about the contracting system being unresponsive, rigid and not adaptable were right on target, but they do not apply solely to information technology procurement. As it is currently structured, the federal contracting process does not appear to serve anyone particularly well. In fact, the contracting process is where good ideas often go to die.
Many people in government dread dealing with the process because they know they often get nothing like they intended. In effect, we “put out a contract” on the idea and kill it. If a process is cursed by so many people, obviously there is someone who is happy with it and driving it. Right? Not really.
I spent nine years running HR for the Defense Logistics Agency. DLA is one of the largest buying agencies in government, with more than 3,000 GS-1102 Contract Specialists. DLA’s contracts staff is superb. They have great training, dedication to the mission, and the resources they need to award over 8,000 contracts and task orders a day. Yet, when I talked with them I found a high level of frustration with the processes they had to use.
As the face of the FAR and DFARS, contract specialists bear the brunt of the criticism from agency staff and vendors, yet they are not the reason for the problems. Many of them have not been given the level of training they need and most of them are doing the best they can in a bad system. Agency program managers are generally even less satisfied with the contracting process. Awarding a contract to get work done often requires lengthy documents, estimates of costs that the program managers often cannot deliver without going through the process first to see what the market is charging for those services, and evaluation criteria that are sometimes driven more by convenience than what program managers actually need. Some agencies allow program managers to talk with the firms who are bidding on work. Others say, no way. Some encourage extensive program manager involvement in the process, others do not.
As a former fed with 33 years in government, I have to admit I dreaded the contracting slog every time I needed to buy services. It was a maddening process that rarely turned out the way I would have liked. It’s no better on the industry side of the contracting process. Small businesses argue that the scales are tipped against them. Large firms argue that all the good work is going to small businesses, and mid-sized firms are left in the middle with few people advocating on their behalf. Proposal writers have to deal with Statements of Work and evaluation criteria that often appear to be written on different planets, solicitations that expect responses within a few days, responses to questions that say nothing informative and amendments that can change everything at the last minute after days of work. Add to that the all-too-frequent solicitations that firms invest thousands or even millions of dollars responding to, only to see them canceled at the last minute without so much as a “sorry about that” from the agency. And, worst of all, some agencies believe talking to firms that might be bidding on work is bad, because they might get information that would help them in the process. The thinking is that if others do not get the same information at the same time, the government is providing an advantage. Rather than coming up with ways to provide more and better information that will lead to better, more complete and more responsive proposals, the government clams up.
Think about that. Is that really the way to make the contracting process better? Since it does not appear many people are happy with the process, what is the answer?
Some people argue we should use the normal contracting process for routine work, but for high priority programs we should devise new processes that are outside the normal rules. Given the billions of dollars that are invested in so-called routine work, I think that is not the solution. Why have better processes for highly visible work, but a “sclerotic” process for the programs where most of the money is spent?
Much like our government human capital programs, our contracting regulations are the product of many years of iterative work. That type of policy development leads to processes that were not designed by anyone – they just happened over a period of decades. In the end, we get a collection of rules and regulations no one would design if they started over, but everyone feels we are stuck with now.
The best solution is a rethinking of the contracting process from the ground up, but that is not likely to happen in our current political climate. In the interim, we should learn from the lessons of agencies that are more flexible in their administration of the FAR and DFARS. We should also recognize that good ideas come from government and industry and academia and the non-profit sectors. If representatives of every sector participate, we should be able to use regulatory changes to improve the contracting process enough that it becomes responsive to agency needs, protects the public interest in a fair and open contracting process, and allows industry to have the information it needs to be responsive and deliver best value services to government.
Jeff Neal is founder of the blog, ChiefHRO.com, and a senior vice president for ICF International, where he leads the Organizational Research, Learning and Performance practice. Before coming to ICF, Neal was the chief human capital officer at the Department of Homeland Security and the chief human resources officer at the Defense Logistics Agency.