Nearly one year after Congress turned its attention to major cost and scheduling overruns for a big construction project at the Veterans Affairs Department, the VA’s acquisition shop is hoping it can turn the page.
Five new procurement principles are informing the way the department is developing future contracts and managing projects, Greg Giddens, principal executive director of the VA’s Office of Acquisition, Logistics and Construction, told Federal News Radio.
He detailed the five principles in a memo, which he released in December.
Own your work
Move away from procurement rules and regulations, focus on requirements
Engage more with industry
Focus on ordering rather than specific transactions
Ownership is more important than ever, Giddens said, as the VA has more oversight reviews and congressional scrutiny.
“Sometimes this increased oversight results in a delusion of accountability, not a strengthening of accountability,” he said. “We want to make sure all of our employees, all of our teammates across the department understand that they need to own their work. They need to be responsible for their decisions.”
That kind of ownership was largely absent during the VA’s planning for a new hospital in Denver, Colorado.The Army Corps of Engineers took over the construction for the hospital in November 2014, after the project fell months behind schedule and nearly a $1 billion over budget.
The hospital will likely be completed in early 2018, Giddens said. But construction will be done in phases, and some buildings in the hospital complex will open up before then.
Giddens, who assumed responsibility of the VA’s acquisition shop after the Corps took over construction, said the Army has been a good partner. The Corps detailed a few of its own employees to help the VA pilot new project management processes.
Now, the VA is developing its construction management plans in a different way. Giddens said the department is using a green, yellow and red system to indicate what activities are on schedule and which ones are at risk.
“In the past, we have not done as much focus work on managing our requirements process,” Giddens said. “We’ve not had a robust change management framework in place so that once the requirements are identified, we really execute that requirement. We left it too easy for people to come in, and in their minds for the right reasons, want to add and change requirements.”
The department is no longer setting a budget and schedule for a construction project until 30 percent of the design work is completed, Giddens said. The VA is working medical equipment planners as well, to incorporate their feedback earlier in the planning process.
“In the past, when we just barely had a concept in mind, we would go ahead and start talking about costs and schedule — way too early in the process,” he said. “We didn’t have enough definition of our requirements or our potential solutions or analysis of alternatives to really have a meaningful discussion about costs and schedule.”
For Giddens, a successful contract depends on the requirements, not necessarily the specific rules and regulations outlined in the Federal Acquisition Regulation.
“Too many times we found internally at the VA, and even when we’re talking with our private industry partners, we quickly move to FAR speak,” he said. “While those of us in the procurement community need to be very familiar with the FAR, we shouldn’t expect our customers to be as familiar with the FAR. But we can talk about principles that guide us as we move forward.”
That emphasis on requirements is helping the VA communicate more openly with industry, a priority that the department’s chief information officer, LaVerne Council, is also actively pursuing.
Giddens released a second memo in December encouraging more collaboration between his office and industry partners.
When he first took on the job last spring, his employees and private-sector vendors told him the VA was too hesitant to engage with industry. The discussions the department did have, he said, were too guarded.
Now, Giddens said he is meeting regularly with industry organizations and individual vendors to get their feedback, which so far, has been positive.
He’s also pushing his contracting officers to take a more holistic look at procurements across the department. Too often, the VA focused on specific transactions, which meant his contracting officers bought the same things multiple times, he said.
It’s those conversations about what the department needs, and how it will suit the VA’s mission, that will translate into better industry proposals and better products and services, he said.
“In the end, it’s not just about buying something from industry, it’s about leveraging something from industry to help us do our job better,” he said. “It’s as much change management as it is anything. That involves being a team and acting like an enterprise. We can’t afford to act like disjointed stovepipes across the VA.”
Better collaboration, talent management
Ultimately, procurement practices won’t change at the VA without its people and better collaboration between them.
Improving his employees’ experience is a major priority for Giddens.
“It’s important to start bringing that talent into the lower end and then growing them,” Giddens said. “You have to grow, you have to develop them, you have to challenge them, you have to empower them. You have to really get them connected to the mission, which is one of the easier things to do at the VA, because it’s so easy to fall in love and be passionate about the mission of serving veterans.”
The VA hired an acquisition career manager, Judith Dawson, who is working with current procurement professionals to develop their careers and with colleges and universities to recruit new talent.
Dawson has been on the job for about four to five weeks, Giddens said.
With the right people, Giddens emphasized his office’s success depends on a “team sport” mentality.
Activities within the VA acquisition shop and within the department as a whole were often too siloed, he said. But it’s starting to improve.
VA assistant secretaries are meeting regularly to discuss their projects, which often intersect with each other.
“Siloes happen without a lot of encouragement,” he said. “We recognize that it takes work to move us out of that silo environment to one of real meaningful collaboration. Again, not collaboration without conflict, but collaboration where conflict can be put on the table, everyone’s views respected as we work on what the best solution is.”