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The danger in GSA's supplier relationship

Feb. 24, 2014 - 04:14PM   |  
By ROGER WALDRON   |   Comments
Former GSA official Roger Waldron is president of the Coalition for Government Procurement, a director on the Procurement Round Table, and host of the WFED radio show 'Off the Shelf,' and the leading contributor to the 'FAR and Beyond' blog.

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A three-legged stool is an apt description of GSA’s government-wide contracting programs. The first leg represents customer agencies, the second leg is GSA and the third leg is GSA’s contractor base. Sitting atop the stool is the American people—the ultimate customer. The three legs must be in balance to ensure that the government-wide marketplace delivers best value solutions to customer agencies. Unfortunately, there is a growing sense within the contractor community that the “GSA supplier relationship” is out of balance.

For example, although GSA’s draft strategic plan includes as a strategic objective to “enhance relationships with customers, suppliers and stakeholders;” the draft plan does not explain how GSA plans to engage and address the contractor community’s feedback and input. Indeed, the lone strategy listed for enhancing the relationship with the contractor community is the continued administration of the “Supplier Relationships survey” with the promise to act on the results to improve processes and make it easier to do business with GSA. The reliance on a web-based survey as the primary means of engaging with contractors confirms the growing perception that the government does a good job contacting industry but does not adequately consider (or act upon) the positions that contractors communicate.

Moreover, words have meaning. The draft strategic plan’s use of the term “suppliers” signals a very different relationship than the terms “industry partners” or “contractors.” GSA’s use of the term “supplier” emphasizes a growing detachment between customer agencies and federal contractors. Some may applaud this development. This detachment, however, has long term negative implications

One of the keys to successful contract performance is a shared sense of purpose and understanding between customer and contractor. That type of robust communication is what the Myth-Busters campaign is really all about—effective, positive communication around developing, competing for, and performing mission requirements. A more detached relationship between customers and contractors could ultimately increase contract performance risk, limit access to the commercial marketplace and shrink the supply chain.

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There are some hopeful signs. As a result of an industry dialogue with GSA’s Office of the Chief Acquisition Officer (OCAO), the OCAO is looking at addressing “low hanging fruit” opportunities to improve the Multiple Award Schedule (MAS) program. GSA’s new Senior Procurement Executive (SPE) has appointed a new Procurement Ombudsman whose responsibilities will include outreach to the contractor community. The Information Technology (IT) Center, responsible for management of the $16 billion IT Schedule 70, is considering the appointment of a senior contracting officer as a contractor advocate. The advocate will provide a new channel for IT schedule contractors to provide feedback, suggestions, and insights to the GSA IT Schedule 70 management team. And of course, there are examples within GSA of organizations that are Myth-Busters including the OASIS procurement team and the Alliant management team.

Hopefully, these examples mark a new beginning in the GSA-contractor relationship in which open dialogue is encouraged and there is still room for face-to-face discourse beyond webinars and social media. We urge GSA to incorporate some of these best practices for communicating with industry into its strategic plan so that the practices will be routinely used across the agency and serve as an example for other federal agencies.

Rebalancing the three legged stool will not be easy. The current “supplier relationship” balance is part of a larger “gotcha” procurement culture. The supplier relationship is out of balance largely due to oversight being out of balance. Procurement oversight that is highly critical and narrowly focused on management (especially middle management) erodes initiative. It stifles innovation. Communication between government and industry is still seen as increasing risk rather than reducing it.

Leadership across the federal enterprise can reverse this trend and restore the balance. Will it?

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