VA needs to better market its new acquisition approach, industry says

The acquisition shop at the Veterans Affairs Department released 10 guiding principles to better buy products and services. While vendors are relatively optimis...

A need for better communication is driving the Veterans Affairs Department’s acquisition shop to rethink the way it buys products and services. But industry says the VA’s new approach has been slow to trickle down to contracting officers in the field.

Greg Giddens, the department’s chief acquisition officer and principal executive director for the Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, released two memos last December detailing 10 new guiding principles for VA acquisition.

“The intent behind this was to give documented coverage for our employees to go out and take risks,” Giddens said. “If it’s not against the law, not against statute, not against an executive order, and it’s good for taxpayers, veterans and employees, then we need to figure out how to move out on it.”

And he says more change is on the way. His office will likely roll out a new acquisition program management framework this summer.

“That’s going to be another way to help us understand roles and responsibilities in the acquisition process,” Giddens said during a Professional Services Council discussion in Bethesda, Maryland, June 2. “How to get plain-speak; that’s one of the things that we got feedback [from] here. How do we explain this acquisition cycle, both inside and outside the VA? How do we standardize our approach in acquisition and program management?”

After reviewing the Federal Acquisition Regulation and its own procurement policies, the department is also in the process of rewriting its VA Acquisition Regulations, as well as its procurement manual.

“Everything else we need to put in a manual that then we can go through and change and adjust as conditions change,” Giddens said. “We’re going to be just as thoughtful about what goes in the manual.”

The 10 principles indicate a shift in VA’s mindset: one that swings in favor of more ordering and fewer procurements, Giddens said.

  1. Conduct business with integrity, fairness and openness.
  2. Good requirements make for good contracts.
  3. Decisions should be delegated to the lowest appropriate level.
  4. Industry engagement enables better proposals and better execution.
  5. Speed matters.
  6. Competition is our default strategy.
  7. Commercial products and services should be maximized.
  8. Use of contractors who have a track record of successful past performance or who demonstrate a current, superior ability to perform is preferred.
  9. Existing contracts should be used whenever possible.
  10. Meeting our public policy objectives is important.

The department’s average value per transaction is about $72,000, which Giddens said is too low. He said he hoped VA could eventually adopt a strategy more in line with major wholesale companies like Costco, which purchase products in bulk.

“If we were in the TV business at the VA, we would also buy a trainload of TVs, but we buy them one at a time,” he said. “That’s not a way to leverage the market. That’s not a way to leverage our internal resources. That’s a concept that we’re working through, how do we procure less and order more? If we need to buy 1,000, then let’s buy 1,000.”

Contractors seemed relatively enthusiastic about Giddens’ new approach. But they worried whether the new focus was truly making its way internally throughout the entire department, particularly to the contracting shops within individual Veterans Integrated Service Networks (VISNs) and medical centers.

“It’s not marketed,” one vendor said during Thursday’s discussion. “I don’t know that everybody knows about it. … All the VISNs, all the medical centers all order separately. There’s no building of the pipeline of what’s going to come.”

Giddens acknowledged the disconnect.

“If we do a procurement for 1,000 TVs, but the person who needs to order five doesn’t know about that, they’re going to out and order five,” he said.

Though vendors were quick to say they felt similar communication problems across government, Giddens acknowledged that interactions between VA and industry have been less than ideal. It’s for that reason that he specifically pointed to better industry collaboration as one of the new guiding principles and also re-issued a 2011 memo from former Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Dan Gordon, which encouraged agencies more broadly to engage with industry whenever possible.

The VA may also create an industry liaison or as Giddens described it, “an industry clearinghouse,” where vendors can direct their concerns and questions. Giddens said he’d like to create that industry point of contact next year.

Giddens said he’s also trying to reinstate and plan a procurement leadership conference this fall, where vendors could get more face time with VA contracting officers.

Beyond the VA’s focus on requirements and industry collaboration, Giddens said his agency ultimately needs to own its work.

“We had gotten to a place, frankly, where it was somewhat more comfortable to admire our problems than to fix our problems,” he said. “We had gotten to a place where the bureaucracy, we thought, was so large and so hard to make a change. Our problems [were] here for five years, eight years, 10 years, 15 years.”

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