Reflections on federal procurement community’s ability to adapt, succeed

This column was originally published on Roger Waldron’s blog at The Coalition for Government Procurement and was republished here with permission from the author.

As many of you know my home office has been the back porch of our home, sharing it with my office mate and faithful companion, our dog, Larry “Bird” Waldron. With the heat of summer now upon us in Washington, D.C., I have been forced inside and, based on a vote of my family, relegated to the basement.

Well, at least our kids have finished the school year and there is plenty of “office space” here for me.

In April, I reflected on our current situation and the role of the procurement system. The changes in the government’s operating dynamic have been staggering and, in all likelihood, will continue. For example, as discussed below in the Flash, DoD is assessing what the impact of the pandemic will be on its organization, recognizing that it has engaged in a fast-paced expansion of remote work activities in response. We all remain in the process of assessing what the “new normal” is and what it means for federal employees, agency missions, and the industry partners who support them.

From an operational standpoint, what normally would have taken years to implement has been accomplished in months. This is especially true regarding telework and virtual operations. What will we learn from our collective operational adaptions to the pandemic, and how these “lessons learned” will translate into a more effective procurement system, are questions the answers to which are unknowable at this time. While the Coalition continues its laser focus on current government operations, we also are forward-looking, examining how our current experience will shape future operations. As we work through this process, you have our commitment to engage all stakeholders in a positive, thoughtful, and collegial dialogue on the future of the procurement system and the lessons learned in adapting to COVID-19.

Some mid-year reflections from my basement

The breath-taking scale of telework will have long-term impacts on federal operations and industry support of those operations. For example, a recent Bloomberg article cited the explosion of telework at the DoD, going from 95,000 personnel working offsite to about 1.1 million now. Significant new infrastructure investments have been made as a result, and it is likely that more will be made. The lessons learned from this exercise will shape office operations for years to come. Among the key questions/issues/challenges are the following:

  • The federal footprint and the office of the future will fundamentally change. How will the government adjust its real property footprint? What will the office of the future look like post-COVID-19? How will we address employee health and security in office design while also supporting collaborative spaces?
  • We will need to learn how the private sector will respond to the new federal footprint. What new rules of access and engagement will be required, and what are the secondary effects of those new rules with respect to private sector operations?
  • IT Modernization and government digitization are central to improving government operations enterprise-wide. How can we effectively accelerate digitization to meet critical agency missions? We have seen that efficiency gaps created by legacy systems have impacted agency productivity. Investment in digitization and data analytics will directly support more efficient and effective government operations for the American people.
  • Cybersecurity is a foundational to IT modernization/digitization and the new federal footprint. New capabilities and flexibilities must not undermine our security and privacy. How will strategic IT planning and tactical operations adjust to a highly distributed network?

The procurement system could see efforts to increase flexibility and administrative efficiency. The balancing act between streamlining procurement and new government requirements likely will play out in the areas of supply chain and cyber risk, including ever-increasing scrutiny of country of origin. Clearly, the government procurement system will need to “thread the needle,” streamlining processes while imposing new requirements. Will the government create incentives for additional industry sectors, like healthcare, to return manufacturing to the United States?

The pandemic has demonstrated the critical importance of public-private partnership. Innovation is driven by the commercial market, but current experience also demonstrates that the government plays a vital role in creating incentives, frameworks, and conditions where the commercial market can thrive in providing solutions to our current needs. One need to look no further than the ongoing efforts to develop a vaccine for an example of commercial innovation that is being leveraged with government support.

Communication between government and industry remains vital to successful procurement operations. The exchange of information and dialogue around mission requirements, procurement processes, and commercial capabilities supports improved decision making and better mission outcomes. This point may sound like “old school” thinking to some, but notwithstanding legislation, regulation, and memos asserting this point, meaningful communication between government and industry remains a challenge in some quarters. Along these lines, part of communication involves being in the presence of one another. What will be the impact of increased remote work on collaboration and communication?

In closing, the pandemic and tragic current events have come together to upset the normal rhythms of our year. As a nation, we hunkered down from winter to spring and now to summer, socially distanced and without those life rituals that serve as social cues. We have reason to be hopeful, however. As discussed herein, we have shown our unlimited capacity to adapt to exigencies. Also, progress is being made in the development of treatments and a vaccine to address the pandemic.

Through it all, please know that the Coalition is committed to serving as a bridge between the government and its industry partners as we address these key questions on the future of the procurement system and our national health and security.

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