Labor Department brings new acquisition oversight amid OFPP limbo

Something big is brewing over at the Labor Department's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs.

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For all of its talk about yet more procurement reform, the Biden administration still hasn’t appointed anyone to run the small but crucial Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Meanwhile, over at the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs, something big is brewing. Federal Drive with Tom Temin got more information from federal sales and marketing consultant Larry Allen.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And Larry, let’s talk about OFPP. Surprising given everything that the administration would like to do that they haven’t named anyone to that post and Lesley Field, long-serving career civil servant, is the acting or deputy director at OFPP. But you need the political connections sometimes to move things ahead.

Larry Allen: Tom, you’re absolutely right. And right up front, I think we should be clear that everyone in the acquisition community really respects Lesley Field. As you pointed out, she’s been the acting director, the de facto director probably for more time than the last three officially appointed political appointees combined. So Lesley really knows how to run the day-to-day operations of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy – familiar face inside the Office of Management and Budget. But you’re missing that little extra political oomf, that little extra political kick that you get with an appointee that’s actually tied to a specific administration. And sometimes that can be really important. That person can be somebody who can actually maybe know a little bit about procurement, and it can help shape some of the broader policy ideas that come from elsewhere at OMB, kind of maybe serving as a gut check – “Hey, guys, did you really think about the impact of this on acquisition?” Well, these are people who don’t know acquisition. So you kind of need somebody who speaks both the political and acquisition language, who can communicate that message. What’s a little bit unusual about this administration, Tom, is usually by now we at least have a nominee. The Trump administration was perhaps the outlier, in that –

Tom Temin: It took them two years.

Larry Allen: But putting that aside, we definitely have at least a nominee and in some cases by now, we’ve had an administrator sworn in.

Tom Temin: Yes, I remember as far back as the Clinton administration, when they had Steve Kelman come in fairly early. And he initiated a list of reforms that the Clinton administration wanted the reinvention of government-encompassed procurement reform, and there was a lot of activity there, some of which remains to this day. So it is a powerful if small office, and you would think that the Biden team would want their person in there.

Larry Allen: Right. And one of the things traditionally is that with a Democratic president, you get people who have an acquisition background who want to serve in government. So there have to be people out there who are interested in this. And we certainly haven’t had this administration be short, on ideas that would impact the Federal Acquisition System. Talking about revamping Made In America, that’s a big one that has a tremendous potential impact; talking about potentially increasing the small minority business goal, that’s another one. Supply chain management, where do you get your supplies from, who do you subcontract with – there are a whole host of things, not even to mention things like how good you are at managing climate change. These are all things that the administration has talked about implementing via the government procurement system. And it really speaks to the idea that you kind of, should have an appointee in this relatively small but important federal agency who can say, look, let’s put the English procurement translator online, so that we end up with government acquisition rules that overall are moving in the direction of implementing the policy objectives, would still allow the government acquisition system to move at the speed of need. Let’s remember, sometimes what we’re acquiring are things that really need to be acquired quickly and correctly for national defense or cybersecurity. So it’s not all just academic.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners. And in that regard, you found something interesting on the site of the Labor Department’s Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP), which can sort of be in some ways a de facto procurement policy office. And that has to do with contractors’ affirmative action plans.

Larry Allen: Tom, that’s exactly right. And your point about the Department of Labor playing a bigger role than I think many contractors understand in government acquisition compliance is spot on. Whether it’s service contract act, or in the case here formative action plan review, the Department of Labor plays a major role in government acquisition oversight. Here we’re talking about the department’s setting up their affirmative action plan verification interface. It has a long acronym, but that’s what it is. Basically, Tom, this affirmative action plan verification interface is going to be an online system where contractors report what they’re doing in terms of making sure they’re complying with their affirmative action goals. Almost every contractor, certainly every large business that’s doing business with the government has an affirmative action plan. It’s a condition of contract award. The idea here is that the Department of Labor wants to make it easier to review those plans, and to have discussions with contractors that maybe aren’t making as much progress as they could towards achieving their goals, and work out some ways forward so that they can do that. So they want to hold the contractors’ feet to the fire a little bit. But really what they’re trying to do is make sure that contractors are living up to what they said they were going to do originally.

Tom Temin: But you also note, too, that that new interface coming that when you click on it, it says coming soon, so it’s not there yet. The question is, is there any rulemaking connected to it? Or is it simply we don’t know yet whether it’s new rules, or simply new ways of complying with existing rules?

Larry Allen: That’s a very good question. I have not seen anything out of the Department of Labor on rules, Tom, this may be something that’s procedural, because it’s an existing requirement. What might change is the format and how the government collects the information. I’m not sure if the information collection itself is changing. If that changes, then there will have to be a rulemaking because anytime you change the data collection burden on contractors, that triggers a regulatory review, so we might have one of those coming down. But really the bottom line for why the Department of Labor is doing this is they say that close to 85% of contractor establishments don’t submit their affirmative action plan reports within 30 days of receiving a notice letter. That’s kind of complicated, but what they’re really getting at is we the Department of Labor don’t believe that contractors are doing a good enough job of self reporting to us on the progress they’re making on their affirmative action plans. We want to standardize the process, bring a little sunshine into it, and make sure that people are doing what they’re supposed to do. So if I’m a government contractor, I’m going to want to go out and make sure that I’ve got my affirmative action plan in place. I want to review what I’m doing to meet the goals that I said that I was going to make. I want to make sure that I have somebody inside my contract management organization who is charged with running point on this. So you’ve got somebody who can chase it down. So that your your – you didn’t just say, you didn’t just check a box, “Yes, we’re gonna do an affirmative action plan,” and then let that part of your contract sit and gather dust. That’s my recommendation to contractors now so that they’re ready when the “coming soon” comes off of the Department of Labor’s website.

Tom Temin: Larry Allen is president of Allen Federal Business Partners. As always, thanks so much.

Larry Allen: Tom, thank you and I wish your listeners happy selling.

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