Survey: Acquisition policy doesn’t translate

By Jason Miller
Executive Editor
Federal News Radio

Federal acquisition workers say there is a disconnect between the administration’s policies and actual contracting operations.

Contracting officers say in a survey conducted by the Professional Services Council (PSC) and Grant Thornton that guidance from the Office of Federal Procurement Policy isn’t helping them do their job better.

PSC and Grant Thornton surveyed 33 acquisition professionals from civilian and defense agencies as well as experts on Capitol Hill, and found 65 percent say Office of Management and Budget guidance is not clear or actionable, and almost 80 percent said they lacked the resources to implement.


“Part of it is resources for certain, part of it is communications in a different context and part of it is the perception is that some of the policy pronouncements are trying to adopt a one-size-fits all or clear political policy direction when at the front line the goal is mission implementation, getting the job done and not just trying to check the box on particular political proclamations,” said Alan Chvotkin, PSC’s executive vice president and counsel, Monday during a press briefing on the survey.

PSC and Grant Thornton has performed this survey every two years since 2000.

Stan Soloway, PSC president and CEO, said OFPP has done a good job in clarifying specific issues such as when to justify the use of time and materials contracts but the broader perception of how to apply the rules is the issue.

“The policies are not radically different than what’s in the Federal Acquisition Regulations,” he said. “But even amongst the most knowledge acquisition people in government, the perception is they are expected to do fixed price even when it doesn’t belong. It’s not exactly what OMB said, so you point and say ‘OMB did something wrong’, but they clearly created that perception in the field.”

Soloway pointed a recent conversation he had with a Defense official. The official wanted to use a time and materials contract to buy an emerging technology, and had to do a five-page justification for why to use this type of contract. The person has 30 years of acquisition experience, and senior DoD leaders continued to push back, he said.

Chvotkin said many times the guidance is benign and at least offers the opportunity for smart contracting, but the message is “do what I say, not do what I write.”

“This gets into the divide between acquisition professionals on the front line and the political proclamations of the one-size fits all,” he said.

The President has talked about minimizing use of high-risk contracts, which he’s defined as cost type and T&M. Folks at the senior leadership of Defense Department have talked about moving away from time and materials and to fixed price. Those messages get read and operationalized at the field level. When you look at the July 2009 OMB guidance on contracting, it’s very clear they are encouraging the field staff to use their judgment and to apply existing the rules in a smart manner. They recognize one-size doesn’t fit all. That’s what the words say on the paper, but it’s not what the communications coming out is.

OMB did not respond to a request for comment about these findings and the divide the survey found.

The survey also found oversight by agency inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office and Congress is limiting innovation among contracting officers. Respondents say it also is causing acquisition workers to fear risk and bid protests.

Lou Crenshaw, a principal with Grant Thornton and retired vice admiral for the Navy, said there was too much focus on compliance after the fact and not enough up front.

“A lot of investments were put into the oversight responsibilities but there weren’t the corresponding plus-ups in the management responsibilities where it was felt those dollars would be well spent as well,” Crenshaw said. “As you get this focus on compliance, there’s less and less focus on what the actual outputs were and just did you meet the letter of the law?”

The respondents’ comments were telling as well. Some of those include: “The volume of rules is crushing.” “Employees are weighing risk to themselves personally.” “There is no time for innovation because there is no time for judgment.”

But the survey did find that when it came to the Recovery Act, policy and resources came together successfully. A majority of the respondents said they didn’t receive the resources needed to keep up with Recovery Act spending. The same majority said the reporting requirements were not sustainable as well.

But Soloway agencies that did give resources to the acquisition strategy and planning process as well as the back end oversight process saw few mistakes.

“What happened in many agencies, anecdotally we know, as the stimulus requirements came down, resources were shifted to manage those requirements because of both their size and visibility,” Soloway said. “We use that a good example when resources are put to the play, the government has ability to execute some pretty good acquisitions even without a lot of this policy change and policy pressure. It reinforces a view you hear from the government folks in this survey and many others who have been around this for a long time than that more than anything else is the key to success. There still is a gap between the recognition of a need to do that and the execution of that requirement.”

Soloway added that many of the negative results of the survey can be attributed to the growing frustration across the acquisition community. Senior agency officials understand the critical role acquisition plays, but the policy is reducing its effectiveness because it stands in the way of sound judgment.

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