SARA not the be-all and end-all for acquisition reform

Tom Davis, director of government relations at Deloitte and former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said acquisition offices hav...

By Jory Heckman & Michael O’Connell
Federal News Radio

More than a decade after passing the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 (SARA), a former House oversight chairman says the acquisitions workforce still has plenty of room for improvement.

Tom Davis is the director of government relations at Deloitte and former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. During an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose, he said acquisition offices haven’t improved much since Congress passed SARA.

“The acquisition workforce has not gotten larger and it’s not gotten any better,” Davis said, adding that he’s been seeing a record number of bid protests on government contracts.

“I think part of the problem right now is that a lot of the contracting officers are pressured to take the low price,” Davis said. “But these short-term cost pressures on these agencies are such that they try to save a few dollars today, even though they may end up paying more in the long run.”

Davis blamed a lack of robust acquisitions on continuing resolutions, which stalls new contracts, sequestration and paltry government pay raises in the past five years.

“You’ve got to invest in your federal workplace. You’ve got to pay people appropriately, you’ve got to recruit them and keep them and train them, and we don’t seem to be doing a good very good of doing that — and we’re seeing that out the other end with the record number of protests and the government not getting the kinds of products and services that it needs at the right cost.”

Davis, who was a government contracts attorney before seeking public office, said agencies need to reward acquisition officers who look for contracts with long- term value instead of the lowest cost.

“You’re getting a lack of innovation when you go with the safe way. Nobody wants to step outside the box and take a chance,” Davis said. “You’ve got to empower people to make decisions.”

The Office of Management and Budget, Davis said, could also do more to push acquisition reform.

“OMB has traditionally just been O-B, the Office of Budget,” Davis said. “Management, although you have a component of that, they’ve never really flexed their muscle across the agencies the way they are capable of doing.”

Revisiting the lessons of the SARA Panel

Marcia Madsen, partner at Mayer Brown, was chairwoman of the Acquisition Advisory Panel, which was formed to review acquisition laws and regulations and recommend any necessary changes. The group is commonly referred to as the SARA Panel because it was authorized by SARA.

As part of its work, the SARA Panel reviewed the reports of earlier panels, such as the Commission on Government Procurement and the Section 800 Panel. Madsen saw many recurring themes in the groups’ reports regarding procurement, like competition.

“We had noted that there were many situations where the government, despite putting out a competitive RFP, got one offer,” she said in a separate interview with Francis Rose. “For anyone who’s read [the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s] recent competition guidelines, you’ll note that that’s an increasing problem that they note and are paying attention to and trying to figure out why that is.”

Madsen told Rose that it’s a “mixed bag” when it comes to evaluating the success of SARA. She sees a disconnect between what the acquisition community and the buyers think.

“There’s obviously some institutional issues that folks are struggling with,” Madsen said. “We also see maybe a little bit of a mixed bag in terms of government personnel being concerned about having conversations with industry.”

Intervening factors, such as the recession and sequestration, have impacted the government’s ability to implement the recommendations the SARA Panel made back in 2006.

“Coming back around in 2014 to look at those issues is probably a great idea to see what can we do for training for folks, what can we do to let the government recruit people who are interested in this as a career and are willing to tackle this and give them incentives and give them training, because those things have fallen by the wayside,” Madsen said.

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