Federal procurement reforms start by naming the right type of leaders, experts tell Trump

The next administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy —whomever that person ends up being — will have a significant to-do list as they walk in the door. There is a host of Obama administration-era priorities that industry disdains — category management, transactional data rule and a stack of executive orders that many would like to be undone or changed significantly.

Before the new OFPP administrator begins the analysis to set their priorities, a group of former OFPP, Defense Department and agency acquisition executives are urging the administration to focus as much on the “who” as the “what.”

The Procurement Roundtable, which includes former OFPP Administrator Allan Burman, former OFPP Deputy Administrator Rob Burton, former acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Ken Oscar, former General Services Administration Senior Procurement Executive David Drabkin and many others, sent a letter in January to then President-elect Donald Trump outlining three areas the new administration should focus its efforts to improve the acquisition process.

White House prepping government reorg executive order

The most important suggestion, however, isn’t about what needs to change or improve, but who is leading the overall effort.

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“We thought it was the right time to reinforce with the President-elect the importance of picking the right candidates for the various position he has to fill from OFPP administrator to the GSA administrator to the various chief acquisition officers and undersecretaries. In considering their backgrounds in people he might select, having government and industry experience is key. That has not necessarily been the background of people who have been selected historically,” said Drabkin, who now is a member of the Section 809 Panel, “Advisory Panel on Streamlining and Codifying Acquisition Regulations” and director of government contracts at Dixon Hughes Goodman, LLP. “We also wanted to impress upon the President-elect our sense that he provides leadership to the acquisition workforce, and the workforce requires leadership to ensure agencies are getting value for the taxpayer and he should be leading that charge.”

Congress created the Section 809 panel in the fiscal 2016 Defense authorization bill to find ways to streamline and improve the DoD acquisition process. The panel has two years to develop recommendations for changes in the regulation and associated statutes.

Many new administrations do not understand initially the important role OFPP, GSA and the DoD undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics play in making the government run well.

There is a lot of concern that the head of GSA will be a real estate person, instead of someone who gets all facets of the agency’s mission, most importantly acquisition.

Over the years, OFPP administrators have been procurement experts with a limited scope — either industry or government, but rarely both.

I reported on a rumor of an OFPP candidate a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve learned Emily Murphy, the former lead staff member on the House Small Business and the House Armed Services committees who focused on acquisition, is the White House liaison at GSA. These types of adviser roles tend to be a stepping stone to bigger positions.

“There is a need for leadership in the acquisition workforce to provide top cover so that the folks who are doing the work don’t have to fear oversight, and clearly one of the major changes that happened between the 1990s and the 2000s is sheer number of overseers increased dramatically, in some cases there were more overseers in certain places then there was acquisition workforce people,” Drabkin said. “The second is that there is currently at least a perception that overseers will punish or chastise people for doing their jobs if they don’t follow the absolute letter of rule and take the least amount of risk possible.”

Burman added if the Trump administration, like the Obama White House, wants to promote innovation and let agencies have access to new cutting-edge companies and technologies, then it must address the ever-growing aversion to risk.

Burman and Drabkin also say training the acquisition workforce and the program and business side as to what are smart risks and what is possible is just as important as strong leadership.

Burman said it’s not just the understanding of the Federal Acquisition Regulations but critical thinking skills too.

To help get acquisition workers to think more critically, the roundtable is suggesting the Trump administration simplify the FAR.

“The FAR is over 18,000 pages long and literally hundreds of statutes spread out across the U.S. code applying to acquisition with no real systemic way to determine when their purpose has been served and is no longer needed,” Drabkin said. “Even though a regulation might be the result of direction from Congress in the form of a statute or direction from the President in the form of an executive order, nothing prevents you from reviewing that and reporting back to either Congress or the President periodically whether the goal or the outcome that Congress or the President wanted to achieve has been achieved and the rule is no longer needed. Currently, that discipline doesn’t exist in our process.”

The roundtable recommended the Trump administration conduct a review of all acquisition regulations and policies with a goal of reducing them and including sunset provisions in existing ones to force a periodical review.

Drabkin said the administration also could add a cost-benefit analysis to determine the costs to both contractors and agencies. He said that’s analysis particularly for agencies is rarely if ever done.

Federal acquisition is a people-and-process challenge, and one can’t be improved without the other. For too long, Congress and past administrations haven’t given the people factor of the equation enough time, resources or priority. The roundtable is trying to get ahead of the curve by encouraging the Trump administration to address these facets early on instead of going after the more traditional acquisition changes.

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