Analysis: Partisan climate stymies long-term acquisition improvements

Al Burman and Steve Kelman, former OFPP administrators

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Two former administrators of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, Al Burman and Steve Kelman, exemplify an almost bygone era in federal procurement.

Burman, now the president of Jefferson Consulting Group, served as the head of OFPP during the George H. Bush administration. And Kelman, now a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, led the office during the Clinton administration.

During the transition period between the two administrations, Kelman sought out Burman to ask him what his highest priorities as administrator.

“‘I can’t absolutely promise, but I’m going to do my best — if you tell me what they are — to continue with them,'” Kelman recalled telling Burman. “‘I think as best as we can, we need to try to continue these improvement priorities across administrations, across party lines.'”

Kelman and Burman joined In Depth with Francis Rose as part of Federal News Radio’s week-long special report, Inside the World’s Biggest Buyer.

One of OFPP’s goals is not only to create acquisition policy, but improvements that last beyond one administration.

“You want to try to have continuity, as much as you can and keep better management of the procurement system out of partisan politics as much as you can,” Kelman said. “If it’s just an initiative — if it’s forgotten in six months — it’s never going to accomplish anything.”

Lamentably, over the past decade, procurement has become a more partisan issue, Kelman said, which is “devastating” to such continuity, because it prevents the initiatives of one administration from becoming permanent practices that reform the system.

However, current OFPP Administrator Joe Jordan’s recent Senate confirmation was heartening, Burman said.

“It was kind of nice to see that this was a job that wasn’t held up (by Congress), that people recognize the importance of the job,” Burman said. “This is really good governance stuff. Most of the kinds of things that we’re dealing with are things to try to make that process work more effectively and really should be outside of that partisanship area.”

Workforce priorities

The political atmosphere can also seep into day-to-day operations and not just at the top of the agency.

“When the procurement environment becomes very involved in partisan politics, it makes the rank-and-file contracting professional scared and timid,” Kelman explained.

The acquisition workforce has much been studied by good-government and acquisition experts alike.

One positive sign is that there’s a recognition from both the administration and Congress that these positions matter, Burman said. “People are what it’s all about, and so there’s been a lot of support to try to beef up those numbers,” he said.

In fact, the number of acquisition staff is starting to slowly tick upward after years of decline.

“One of the challenges that agencies have, particularly as you get in the higher levels (and) the more senior journeyman positions, as well, is there’s a fixed number of these folks and so they tend to move from one agency to another, but there’s not a whole big increase in terms of people at that level.”

Acquisition evolution

The rise of services contracting — the procurement of services as opposed to products — has changed the landscape of federal acquisition. Agencies across the federal government now spend about 50 percent of their contracting dollars on services, a steady increase over the past few years.

Kelman and Burman both said that increase has made day-to-day buying more complex for agencies.

“So many of the rules and procedures that have been established over the years have been set up to buy things, to buy products,” Burman said. “And to try to make them work effectively in this new environment is tough — they’re not the same thing.”

This story is part of the Federal News Radio week-long special report, Inside the World’s Biggest Buyer.


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