Agencies push new freedoms to the limit

By Christopher J. Dorobek

GCN Staff

One of the most difficult aspects about the freshman year of college is accepting the responsibilities of freedom.

Most college freshmen'present company excepted, of course'find their first months away from home a trying experience. Freed from high school rules, it takes time for them to learn that all-night fun has consequences, such as fighting to stay awake during classes.

Looking back on those days, the solution seems so simple'go to bed earlier. Yet to this day I would not trade those all-night yak sessions for more sleep.

That's so mature

Agencies are still in the freshman year of procurement reform.

With the Brooks Act, like high school curfews, just a memory, rules for government buys are far more liberal; procurement reform lets agencies do pretty much what they want. But this condition has renewed concerns about how agencies make decisions about what they buy.

Some of the experimentation in making buys is healthy, as were some of those all-night college chats. Procurement executives have said agencies need to try new concepts without fear of consequences if they make a mistake.

But the concern is that agencies are taking their newfound freedom and staying out all night, every night.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), ranking minority member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and an author of the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act, has been worried about how agencies compete task orders for governmentwide acquisition vehicles.

Some lawmakers are concerned that agencies are not opening task orders on multiple-award contracts to competition. Peter Levine, minority counsel for the Armed Services Committee, raised this same subject last year when he issued a stark warning to agencies and vendors to behave.

The situation is paradoxical. Strangely, after fighting to open up the government market to competition, some agencies are avoiding competition in favor of sole-source buys.

The issue is even more perplexing when one considers how easy it is to put a project out to competition. Government executives, lawmakers and vendors have worked hard to streamline the competitive buying process with phenomenal success. The process today closely mirrors commercial practices.

The sole-source debate threatens to put a dent in procurement reform, and if agencies aren't careful, they could find themselves, like errant students, facing reprisals. The punishment could come in the form of new rules that permit protests of task orders.

For many observers, sole-source procurement is inexplicable, especially in these days of streamlined buys.

Former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator Steve Kelman, now a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, recently said that it does not make sense to sacrifice reforms for the sake of cutting five days from the contracting process.

Agencies should take the extra time to ensure they compete task orders, he warned recently. 'If that means instead of two weeks it takes three weeks or, God forbid, three-and-a-half weeks ' we need to act responsibly,' he said.

If Congress views government acquisition contracts as de facto sole-source buying, Kelman said, 'I can guarantee it is only a matter of time' before it regulates the contracts.

The extent of the problem is not clear. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said he did not see sole-source procurement as a major issue. 'At the end of the day, you either have to trust your buyers or not trust your buyers,' he said. Congress needs to continue to monitor the situation and let agencies know that lawmakers are watching, he said.

Most procurement experts recommend agencies follow procurement Rule 101: Say what you are going to do, and then do it.

To a certain degree, the ends do justify the means. But with streamlined buying procedures, it is relatively easy to follow the rules and get results.

In the end, the best way to protect the reforms is to implement the reforms. In other words, compete, focus on results, and be happy. And get enough sleep.


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