Acquisition quiz: True or False?

If you keep hearing the same thing over and over, is it true? Take certain federal procurement axioms: Virtually every procurement nowadays is protested. Contracting officers are not allowed to talk to potential bidders. There are too many contracting vehicles out there. Federal News Radio set out to explore the stories behind these refrains, with the help of two procurement experts.

“Virtually every procurement is protested.”

False, Dan Gordon, a former head of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy, now with The George Washington University Law School told Federal Drive host Tom Temin.

“It’s laughable, but I hear it all the time,” Gordon said.

It’s true that the Government Accountability Office reported 2,429 bid protests filed last year, marking a 22-percent rise over five years. But that’s tiny, compared to the “hundreds of thousands” of federal procurements that occur each year, Gordon said.

Companies that lose competitions for contracts are not likely to protest, he said, drawing upon past experience as a private attorney.

Often the author of the losing proposal wants to protest, but their boss discourages them, he said.

“CEOs would say, ‘We’re not throwing good money after bad,’ because even if you win a protest, you may not get the contract,” Gordon recalled.

His research showed “Three-quarters of the time, the protest winner still didn’t get the contract,” he said.

“Contracting officers are not allowed to talk to potential bidders.”

False, according to former General Services Administration Federal Acquisition Service commissioner Jim Williams, who now has his own consulting firm.

There’s no policy that tells agencies representatives to stop talking with contractors during a certain point in the bid process, he said.

But “a lot of the acquisition people we’re raising these days are so risk averse, they think it’s better never to talk with industry.”

The silence has grown recently, perhaps due to the “oversight environment,” he added.

The White House in 2011 launched a campaign called Mythbusters to encourage communication between agencies and companies prior to solicitations. Gordon, who created the initiative, said he sees “marginal improvement,” but greater progress has eluded an acquisition workforce spread thin.

“Despite the fact that we’ve made some progress in numbers, they often feel overworked,” he said. “They don’t have time for contact, but they’re also intimidated by [inspector general] reports, GAO reports and Hill hearings and they’re often afraid to talk with industry.”

Overall, he said, “the drumbeat of accusations against our contracting staff causes us to take a step backwards every time I think we’ve made a step forward.”

“There are too many multiple-award contracts.”

True or false, depending on your viewpoint. Williams, formerly of GSA, questioned the number of governmentwide acquisition contracts, on top of the multiple award schedule contracts that GSA administers.

NASA and the National Institutes of Health manage the other popular GWACs. NASA has lowered its fees and added vendors in the latest version of its SEWP contract.

“If you look at NASA doing things in the health field now, I’m not sure that’s the right thing,” Williams said. “But there hasn’t been anyone strong at the [Office of Management and Budget] who is doing anything proactive about this.”

Too many contracting vehicles that list the same contractors is a poor use of both government and industry resources, Williams said.

On the other hand, Gordon, the former OFPP administrator, said he took a hard look at the multiple award landscape when he was at the White House, and he came away convinced that the government had it right.

“In the olden days, when GSA had a monopoly, I don’t think that worked that well. I think most federal users would tell you it’s actually healthy to have some competition against GSA,” he said. “Does that mean we should have a thousand? No, but the few governmentwide contracts that we have, whether they’re for IT, GWACs or other open, [indefinite delivery, indefinite quantity] contracts, work pretty darn well.”

Listen to Jim Williams full interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Listen to Dan Gordon’s full interview on the Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

More from the special report, Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform:

Acquisition workers as critical thinkers

31 ideas for reforming DoD contracting

Acquisition quiz: True or false?

Why leadership, not Congress, is key to acquisition reform

Successful DoD acquisition programs start with funding for the workforce

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