Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s top acquisition executive, was recently quoted as saying he is looking for ways to creatively transfer the expertise of experienced people leaving the workforce to the new generation and give people the experience they need to develop their skills and careers. The problem with today’s federal procurement workforce is that experienced hands are leaving, leadership is underperforming in finding ways to transfer expertise to the new generation, and many younger workers lack the requisite initiative to find and pursue best-practice experiences.
One of the main problems is poor communication between federal procurement staffs and industry.
The Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) has tried to fix the problem. In February 2011 and again in May 2012, OFPP officials issued memos to the federal acquisition community in hopes of prompting a more healthy and engaged dialogue between federal procurement staffs and vendors. These memos were titled, “Myth-busting: Addressing misconceptions to improve communication with industry during the acquisition process.”
The memos encourage “early, frequent and constructive engagement with industry,” especially in cases involving complex, high-risk procurements. In short, the memos say feds need to buy more like it’s done in the commercial world. They need to talk more with industry to find out how it’s done and how commercial products and services can fill government needs. Talking more with industry also helps the feds by encouraging private innovation and by learning how to take advantage of it. But these myth-busting guides languish at many agencies. The word just does not get to the field.
Communication isn’t the only problem. Among the most serious is the emphasis feds place on “lowest price, technically acceptable” procurement actions. When the government overused detailed design specifications, performance specifications were born. Detailed requirements lend themselves to pass or fail technical evaluation and award to the lowest price. But we’re now in the performance specification era where “best value” trade-offs should rule. Performance specifications and lowest price technically acceptable selection are a bad mix. Poor leadership at the top and inexperience at the bottom have created this problem.
There is such a thing as the wisdom of the ages in federal procurement. We’ve learned that fixed prices for ill-defined statements of work are a bad idea. We’ve also flirted with the notion that buying like the commercial world can be a good idea. We’ve also learned that full and open debriefings prevent more protests than they encourage and that cooperation and communication with the contractor not only are legal requirements, they also help assure successful contractor performance. There is a vast storehouse of valuable best-practice information in the memory of the retiring workforce on any number of subjects relevant to today’s procurement activities.
Kendall is looking for “ways to creatively transfer” this book of wisdom to the new generation of acquisition workers. We see a simple solution that will take some hard work. First, OFPP needs to write more memos like the myth-busters memos. It needs to update and expand on its 1994 best practices for contract administration guide.
Senior acquisition executives who receive the OFPP memos need to do a better job of leadership in making sure the word gets to the field. They also need to be held accountable for making sure best practices are in fact practiced in the field. Finally, the new generation needs to find the winners, understand their winning ways and adopt the practices experience has taught will work. In other words, the new generation need to exercise better initiative in finding the wisdom of the ages in procurement.
How do you creatively transfer that expertise? We propose that the retiring generation assist OFPP in writing down best practices for contract formation and administration. Senior acquisition executives need to commit to making sure the word gets to the field. And the new generation needs to exercise initiative in finding the best-practice experience and in following it.
Start with communication. The myth-busting memos are the model. Those best practices have been vetted thoroughly by the most experienced professionals in the business.
It’s not enough to lament the loss of experienced contract people and hope some magical management formula can fill the void. It’s a simple matter of passing on the wisdom of the ages. Rehire the retirees. Ask them to help OFPP put together the best-practice guide. Write it down, push it down and supervise its implementation.
William J. Spriggs is a member of the Spriggs Law Group, a government contracts law firm.