Improving federal IT acquisitions

Blogger Steve Kelman contends vendors should make experts available to provide comments or suggestions on technical or contracting strategy issues during the contract bidding process.

I attended a George Washington University Law School colloquium organized by Chris Yukins, a professor and one of two vice chairmen of a panel sponsored by IT industry trade association TechAmerica, called "Government Technology Opportunities for the 21st Century," which I co-chair together with Linda Gooden from Lockheed Martin. 

The purpose of the TechAmerica panel is to look at barriers and implementation approaches toward introducing a number of widely recommended suggestions for how government can improve the value IT projects deliver agencies and taxpayers.  The purpose of the colloquium was to bring together people from the legal community -- most in the audience appeared to be either students or faculty in the GWU contracts law program or government attorneys working on contracting -- to talk about contracting issues that are relevant to the panel's work.

Early in the conversation, Dan Gordon, on the panel as the administrator of the federal Office of Federal Procurement Policy, posed an important question in a very interesting way.  He asked:  "I am guessing that many in industry know when they read an RFP [request for proposals] that the government is putting out to bid a program that is likely to fail.  Yet I am also guessing that industry seldom says this to the government.  What can we do to change this?"

This was a fascinating question and generated a good deal of interesting discussion. One audience member noted that frequently the people who comment for industry on requests for information (RFIs) or draft RFPs are capture managers who are not technical experts, and thus not in a position to understand technical or acquisition strategy problems with draft government documents. This relates to the issue of the separation between proposal writers and people who will actually do the work that I discussed in a blog post last week.

A long time ago I first made the suggestion that the government should announce upfront in a major procurement that it will give evaluation credit for helpful suggestions (as opposed to self-serving suggestions) from bidders during communications prior to RFP release for ways the government could save money by changing its specs/performance requirements, or for pointing out mistakes or ambiguities in draft language.  (It would be helpful for the government to know when there was debate inside a company about what the government meant by some of its language.)  I have been pushing this idea literally for two decades but, alas, still haven't gotten a single agency to try it out.

Undaunted by my earlier failure, I made another suggestion.  Why doesn't the government announce early on in pre-RFP communication stage that any company that wishes to bid on the contract or task order must make available one or more technical people to provide comments/suggestions on technical or contracting strategy issues in the draft document?

When I suggested this, there were two comments.  One was that no company ever wants to tell a customer that an approach they are pursuing is wrong.  I've heard that view before, and surely there is something to it, but perhaps we need training for both sides to make the point that tough love here may be good from a long term perspective for the government program manager (who wants a failed and/or contentious program?) and hence should be a plus, not a black eye, for a vendor to point out problems.  Additionally, I just discussed the phenomenon of "escalation of commitment" in my management class today (placed into an escalation of commitment situation, two students ended up paying $190 each in an auction to buy a $20 bill), and it is yet another argument for early communication between government and industry that it is easier for government to accept suggestions at an early, draft stage than later on in a project, when commitment levels are higher.

A second comment was that often the government's technical expertise is so weak that the government folks are not even in a position to tell whether a technical suggestion from industry is sensible or merely self-serving.  That is a serious issue, to which I will return in my next post.

Meanwhile, reactions and comments?