Use vendor debarment only as a last resort

Thomas R. Temin

Vendors. You can't live without them, but sometimes it's hard to live with them.

Agency managers and vendors alike frequently refer to the government-industry partnership as necessary to get quality information technology projects done. Certainly major projects should be approached as partnerships to the highest degree possible.

But legally, agencies and vendors are also in contractual relationships where things can go wrong'despite everyone's best intentions. When they do, what should you do?

As our Page 1 story illustrates, state and local procurement and program managers are reluctant to debar vendors from further contracts, even when projects fail and the two sides run into irreconcilable differences.

In the now-famous case of Mississippi vs. American Management Systems Inc., those differences resulted in a multimillion-dollar court settlement. Yet, as GCN/State & Local editor Wilson P. Dizard III reports, state officials signed a contract with AMS for another project the same day they signed the complaint.

Even procurement and program officials who possess the debarment club said they generally view it as a too-heavy weapon to wield against companies.

That's wise. Such a policy recognizes the distinction between the causes of poor performance and the intentions of the guilty contractors.

Companies that do business in the government IT field rarely commit out-and-out fraud. Projects go awry mostly because of mundane incompetence. Bad project management, misunderstood specifications and failure to communicate come to mind first. And let's face it, except when there is deliberate deceit, both parties usually share the blame.

Procurement officials have another tool to punish the bad guys and reward the good ones: Use past performance in evaluating bids. This generally keeps the poor performers out of contracts. Plus, it doesn't entail the legal and administrative hassles of debarment.

But simply avoiding a contractor isn't enough to further an agency's interests and enhance the possibility of future success with a given vendor. Honest and well-intentioned vendors want to know what they did wrong, and you have an obligation to tell them. Then, if they're in the doghouse for a year or so, at least they'll know why and take steps to fix what's wrong.

Does this mean you should never debar vendors? Of course not. You should have the debarment option in your toolbox. But you should use it only against vendors that commit truly egregious acts.

Thomas R. Temin

Editorial director


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