How DHS is thawing the industry-government deep freeze

The thaw in industry-government collaboration for acquisitions has yet to fully materialize. Even after more than six years since the first mythbusters memo from the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the freeze at many agencies remains deep into the permafrost.

OFPP is planning a third mythbusters memo as part of its continuing effort to improve communication around acquisition.

But there are signs that the sheet of ice is starting to crack.

In 2017 alone, four agencies held reverse industry days — the IRS, the General Services Administration, the Homeland Security Department and the Defense Department — where they bring in contracting officers and other acquisition professionals to learn from industry.

DHS will host a third reverse industry day in October.

Another sign comes from the awards under GSA’s Enterprise Infrastructure Solutions (EIS). GSA received only one minor protest, which experts say the Government Accountability Office (GAO) likely will dismiss fairly quickly.

A second good measuring stick will come later this year when GSA makes awards under the Alliant 2 governmentwide acquisition contract (GWAC) for IT services. GSA is using a vendor self-scoring system, similar to what they used for OASIS.

The biggest cracks in the industry-government procurement ice can be seen at DHS.

Soraya Correa, the DHS chief procurement officer, said her goal since she came into the CPO role in January 2015 has been to improve how industry and the agency work together.

“Our job is to try to find a way to get the job done. It’s not to say ‘no.’ There are very few instances where the answer is really ‘no.’ The answer may be ‘not in that way,’ or ‘not in that timeframe,’ but it’s rare that the answer is ‘no’ unless someone is asking you to do something completely illegal, and rarely do we run into those circumstances,” Correa said at the July reverse industry day in Washington. “One of the things I’ve tried to do is work a little closer with our community to help people understand how we think, why we do the things that we do, and how do we simplify and make it more understandable.”

Part of the way Correa can simplify and make how DHS works more easily understood is by reaching out and talking to industry partners.

Correa’s office, particularly the Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL) and the DHS chief information officer, meet with industry and answer questions on a regular basis.

“We created the industry liaison to be that conduit for industry to be able to get in and say what they are trying to find out,” she said. “It doesn’t mean the industry liaison will have all the answers, that’s not the intent. The intent is that it can navigate you through the process, get you to the right people, and tap our people and say, ‘we have some industry folks who are interested in this,’ and they are the smart ones that can actually say ‘we have enough people who are asking about this that maybe we should host an industry day, or participate in an event or do a webinar,’ or whatever the best idea is so we can get the information out as quickly and as efficiently as possible, and not have industry feel like we are avoiding them. We really are not avoiding you. That’s just not even the case.”

Correa isn’t just saying the right things. The reverse industry days and other efforts are about following the talk with actions.

“What I encourage industry always to do is reach out and talk to us. I think any industry rep who has reached out to me knows that I do respond. I may not respond in the moment that you called me or wrote to me, but I always find a way to respond,” she said. “I do take a lot of meetings with industry myself, and many of the senior leaders in the department take meetings with industry with me when I invite them.”

One of the best pieces of advice Correa provides to contracting officers is the simple understanding that they can tell a vendor anything, and if there are any concerns that information would give that company an unfair advantage, then post the same information in FedBizOpps.gov.

“You just have to be smart about how we talk to industry and when we talk to industry, and what information we give, and take corrective action if we make a mistake,” Correa said.

Correa said her office’s biggest mistake was with its $1.5 billion agile procurement called FLASH. DHS canceled FLASH earlier this year and an internal assessment found huge missteps and errors.

“I’m still standing and I already confessed I owned it and it was my fault. Sometimes we have to step up to the plate and support their people and say it’s OK if we don’t get it 100 percent. We will learn from it and move on,” she said. “There is a difference in a performance failure versus a failure because you were trying to do something better, more effectively and more efficiently. As long as we are trying to improve the system, as long as we are trying to improve the way we do our business and as long as we are trying to make our government better, we should be experimenting. We should be trying. Hopefully, leaders like myself and Chip [Fulghum, the DHS deputy undersecretary for management at DHS] will stand up to say ‘it’s ok to innovate, and it’s okay to stub your toe on occasion and sometimes you break your foot, but it’s okay.’”

If more acquisition officials would be this honest about their relationship with industry, and take this much responsibility for their office’s breakdowns, the procurement environment across government would be much more successful and less litigious.

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