Communication, transparency key to successful procurements

Like virtually everything in the federal government, the relationship between agencies and industry organizations is complex. Contracts, buying and selling are just a small piece of the pie. Communication and collaboration are key factors that must exist in the pipeline between the public and private sectors.

As part of our special report, The Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform, Federal News Radio hosted a panel discussion Thursday with acquisition experts in the federal government.

“One of the ongoing issues that we’re trying to convince our workforce is that they have to talk to industry,” said Jeff Koses, senior procurement executive in the Office of Governmentwide Policy at the General Services Administration. “Sometimes they feel pressured not to do it. Sometimes the safer action is to move away, not to communicate. And we think that always hurts procurement.”

Busting acquisition myths

Koses brought up the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s Mythbusters campaign with Federal Drive Host Tom Temin and Executive Editor Jason Miller. Like the popular television show, OFFP used facts to either prove of disprove a number of misconceptions surrounding vendor-agency communication.

“Study after study has shown, when we engage with industry early in the process, where they’re part of requirements definition, we get more bids, better competition, better outcomes, better results,” Koses said.

Jim Blades, managing director of contracts and grants at the Millennium Challenge Corporation, agreed that open communication improves the procurement process. Before coming to MCC, Blades worked in contracting at the Federal Aviation Administration.

He said FAA took a “big sky approach” to its acquisition policy update a number of years ago, when the administration moved away from using the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) and developed its own acquisition processes. One of the major ways the agency strayed from the FAR was in its flexible and open communication.

“Communication wasn’t one way with every contractor,” Blades said during the panel discussion. “You talked to each contractor during procurements based on the particular proposals you got and the partnership that you were striving after. I think the communication was just open, honest [and] certainly with integrity.”

Leveraging digital tools

Other agencies too are embracing transparency when it comes to procurement. GSA has been open with communication throughout the lifespan of its OASIS contract. The contract’s program manager blogs weekly about the contract.

Along with blogs, crowdsourcing and social media are increasingly contributing to communication. Professional councils and non-profits use crowdsourcing to allow information to flow between the public and private sector. Agencies are also using LinkedIn to moderate conversations and forums.

“As we’re now dealing with the digital natives coming into workplace [and] addressing these issues, what we’re trying to figure out is, how do we give them the tools to make this meaningful? How do we start incorporating everything from video to blogs to digital tools to give the workforce new data sets and to let them run with that?” Koses said.

One way GSA is applying the concepts of social media and more targeted communication is in Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZones). The HUBZone program aims to help small businesses in rural areas have access to contracting opportunities. Like many other agencies, GSA has struggled to reach HUBZones.

The agency created a visualization tool to help contracting officers find and interact with HUBZones. The tool overlays data from the Small Business Administration’s search engine with a U.S. map. Employees can then filter businesses by location, code or history of contracts with an agency.

Cross-agency collaboration

Aside from communication with industry, agencies also need to communicate and collaborate with each other. Governmentwide initiatives, such as the 2014 cross-agency priority goals and formation of the Strategic Sourcing Leadership Council, have helped agencies leverage collaboration across government.

“The important thing for small agencies is work being done to create a more collaborative environment — sharing information and knowledge,” Blades said. “And that is the path we should continue down.”

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

After decades of DoD acquisition reform, Congress has yet to tackle cultural issues

31 ideas for reforming DoD contracting

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