More mythbusting needed around industry-government communications

The continued inability of agencies to provide truly educational debriefings to contractors when they lose out on a contract is one of the biggest problems with federal procurement. Time and again, I’ve written about debriefings as the one outstanding issue for how agencies could easily avoid bid protests and help industry down a continuous improvement path.

Well, there might just be some light at the end of this contracting tunnel. Anne Rung, the administrator in the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said at the recent Acquisition Excellence conference that she’s working with the Chief Acquisition Officer’s Council to share some debriefing best practices governmentwide.

“Industry communications ranges from the informal to the formal and so we are looking across the whole range on things we can do better and to identify those best practices,” Rung said. “From the informal, it’s even events like this. It’s sitting down with the leaderships of the companies to get their input to the more formal channels like Acquisition 360, where we are asking for specific input on specific IT acquisitions or through the series with ACT-IAC. I think we are trying to identify some of those best practices and put them out as a second generation Mythbusters.”

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Under the two Mythbuster memos from 2011 and 2012, OFPP encouraged agencies and industry to talk more about upcoming and in-process procurements.

But over the last few years, it’s become clear the good-intentioned memos had trouble trickling down to the field. Many in industry say communications between government and vendors has gotten worse, not better.

Rung said she’s heard similar concerns from industry where in-depth debriefings are not the rule, and then they are done, it’s a phone call instead of an in-person discussion.

“To me, it always goes back to the industry-government communications, it sounds so simple, but to me, it’s the root of a lot of our challenges, the lack of communications. We need to do better in that space,” she said. “With any change we are trying to drive across 3,200 procurement units, it’s a matter of repetition, being clear and consistent and identifying the best practices and getting the word out.”

Rung said OFPP is getting some initial feedback under the Acquisition 360 tool that focuses on how agencies are doing with IT buys.

She said over the last year OFPP has collected data from more than 1,000 contracts working on complex IT acquisitions.

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“By the end of 2016, our goal is to gather data from all IT acquisitions over $500,000, which will represent 40 percent or $20 billion,” she said. “As responses come back in, we are starting to see certain things that need to improve.”

She said debriefings were a clear area that agencies need to focus more on.

“To me, that’s a really important element in attracting companies and keeping them in the marketplace,” Rung said. “They want to understand what they did wrong or right so we are working on ways we can reach out to the workforce and provide them with best practices and better educate the workforce on that.”

It seems Rung understands the problem, but the question is whether another memo or guidance, and more discussions within the CAO Council is enough. Previous efforts have fallen short, in part, because the message didn’t flow down fast enough.

OFPP should consider mandatory townhalls with all contracting officers, inspectors general and lawyers where for one day, maybe even just for a few hours, CAOs provide a straightforward and sincere discussion about why debriefings matter, how to conduct them and answer questions about any concerns or reasons for contracting officers may hesitate in conducting them. And then, OFPP and CAOs could repeat this every quarter for the next year or more to ensure the message is getting to all those that matter.

I’m sure even the National Contract Management Association would be a welcome partner in getting the word out.

It seems to me, training continues to be the answer to many acquisition challenges.

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