Clear rules needed

Thomas R. Temin

In the last few years, the gulf between IT contractors and government agencies has narrowed.

Used to be, except when requirements were specifically (or illegally) wired in favor of a particular vendor, agencies tended to keep contractors at arms' length.

Services, performance-based contracts, oral presentations and rapid down-selects give agency officials greater discretion. They can also give contractors more detailed interior views of their customers.

That isn't necessarily bad. But the drive toward enterprise architectures, as reported in GCN's Sept. 15 issue, has raised new questions about conflict of interest.

The Federal Acquisition Regulation frowns on contractors hired for design work also getting the build work. But developing and implementing an architecture are, in practice, pretty hard to separate.

So a contractor doing an agency's design can get an inside track on the rest of the work.
Hiring the vendor is wrong under the FAR'even if the vendor is the best candidate to do the work.

Perhaps restraint and good taste would keep the design contractor from bidding for subsequent work, but that's not always the case.

No simple answer exists for this dilemma. Companies may declare firewalls between divisions working on contracts, but these are hard to monitor and enforce.

Agencies can draw lines between project stages, but such lines are likely to be arbitrary.

In truth, total transparency and flexibility are the only real ways to keep such contracting aboveboard.

Transparency means any interested party can see the products and processes resulting from the design.

Flexibility means those buying and performing the follow-on work can challenge the specs and other results of their predecessors.

Above all, an agency must be absolutely clear from the outset that all bidders will have a fair shot at each stage of a project.

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