OFPP sees ways to improve buying

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Age: 37

Family: Jennifer, wife; Katie, daughter, 18 months

Leisure activities: Reserve officer, D.C. Metropolitan Police Department

Car currently driven: '98 Ford Explorer and '02 Jaguar S-Type

Last book read: There's a Wocket in My Pocket by Dr. Seuss

Dream job: Member of Congress

Motto: 'One always overestimates what can be done in one year and underestimates what can get done in five.'

David Safavian, government's procurement chieftain

Rick Steele

It took 387 days for the Senate to confirm David Safavian as head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He spent that time as counselor to Clay Johnson III, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget, unofficially working on procurement issues while Robert Burton, the career deputy director, was acting administrator.

When the Senate finally approved Safavian in November to replace Angela Styles, he walked into one of the most heated climates in government. Between competitive sourcing and the recent spate of procurement problems at the General Services Administration, the Air Force and other agencies, Safavian has found himself in the middle of some controversial issues.

Safavian comes to OFPP with an understanding of both the public and private sectors, as well as of Congress. Before working at OMB, he was chief of staff for GSA administrator Stephen Perry and worked for two congressmen. His plans include making small changes to procurement policies and regulations, including the A-76 circular.

Safavian earned a bachelor's degree in political science from St. Louis University and a law degree from Michigan State University's Detroit College of Law. He also received a master's degree in tax law from Georgetown University. Safavian spoke to GCN senior writer Jason Miller.

GCN: How is the health of the federal procurement system?

SAFAVIAN: Things are moving along adequately, but they can be improved. There have been some anomalies, such as the Air Force's procurement scandal involving Boeing Co. and Darlene Druyun, some of the issues going on at the General Services Administration and a couple of other agencies that are struggling.

Those, I believe, are anomalies, and that you can't draw upon those to say the procurement system is a mess. Those are instances that highlight some of the weaknesses that we might need to take a look at and fix'in fact they are being fixed.

We must look first and foremost at the coming retirement boom in the next five years: 70 percent of our senior executives are eligible for retirement and 40 percent of midlevel managers are ready to retire. If we see the brain drain that a lot of people have talked about, we are in some real trouble. That is one of the challenges that I have volunteered to take on.

GCN: Are we seeing the results of Congress and agencies cutting procurement staff in the 1990s?

SAFAVIAN: I don't think having a well-trained contracting workforce and some of the more streamlined acquisition vehicles are mutually exclusive. You have to have one for the other to be successful. It is only when we fall down on the human side of things that we run into real issues.

GCN: How much of the focus will be on training? Is that the biggest challenge or is hiring more people into the contracting field a bigger challenge?

SAFAVIAN: I don't know if I can rank them 1-2-3. I think one goes with the other. You will not get quality candidates if they cannot count on you having quality training, and you will not have good acquisition professionals if you don't give them the tools they need. One of the first things we have done is ask the GSA to move the Federal Acquisition Institute into the Defense Acquisition University. We think there are more synergies there by putting the two together.

GCN: What are the next steps OFPP will take to improve training?

SAFAVIAN: We have asked FAI to do a gap analysis: What are the skills we need? What are the people we need? How do we get the skill sets brought up to spec, and how do we bring in more folks?

The FAI board of directors is really taking this on. Our goal for 2005 is to have that gap analysis completed, so we know what our targets should be.

GCN: Are the lack of training and the increase in complex procurements the real culprits when it comes to the recent spate of contracting problems?

SAFAVIAN: The contracting problems are symptomatic of the training problem. I'm not familiar enough with the intricacies with most of those to say they are directly the result of poor training. As you see more protests being filed and upheld, that may be an indicator of [shortcomings in] either the experience of the acquisition workforce or the level of training we have.

GCN: With all these complex procurements and the protests that have followed them, is the Government Accountability Office expecting too much from federal agency contracting officers?

SAFAVIAN: There are a couple of factors at work here. One is that the process by which we purchase is becoming increasingly technical, because of various requirements under the law, because of the complexity of the products or services we are buying and the scope, because of the manpower crunch some agencies face with acquisition workforce.

As our transactions grow, the competition in the private sector becomes even more fierce by the day. And there is no incentive not to protest. My sense is that it is worth discussing [a plan] to bring some sort of parallel measure to what we have in the civil court system.

Should we be discussing whether, if a court or board or GAO finds that there is no valid basis for the protest, then the loser should pay? We need to identify ways to ensure as much as possible, that the people who are protesting have a valid claim rather than being people who feel like they lost the contract and might as well protest.

GCN: What areas of procurement policy and regulation will the administration focus on over the next year?

SAFAVIAN: The areas we will be looking at are the human capital strategies of the acquisition workforce, suspension and debarment.

We will take a hard look at how the regulations and processes regarding suspension and debarment work. My initial sense is they penalize small businesses, and they don't necessarily act as a deterrent for large ones. I want to talk to the members of the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee and get their take on where they think there is room for improvement.

Clearly our emphasis on A-76 has not been reduced. The fact that we will look at other issues that are procurement related shouldn't be taken as a signal that we will back off of A-76. We do have some policy issues that have to be resolved, and I suspect we will have to look at ways to improve the circular.

GCN: What areas of A-76 need to be improved?

SAFVIAN: Congress got employee protest rights right. It strikes a good balance and provides a mechanism for valid protests to be heard. But there is no mechanism to prevent anyone from throwing protest after protest out there as a means of delay.

GCN: How will the administration continue to explain the benefits of A-76 to agencies and their unions?

SAFAVIAN: The more information out there, the better. You can attack our methodology, but it is pretty hard to attack the bottom-line cost savings for competitive sourcing that we identified in our 2003 report and that were validated in the upcoming 2004 report. In 2003, we saved net $1.1 billion as a result of our competitive-sourcing activities.

It is hard to argue that competitive sourcing is not generating efficiencies. In 2004, we had a greater savings rate despite the fact we had fewer competitions. That tells us agencies are getting much better at running the competitions, using this a regular management tool.

My hope is to be able to have a working relationship with some of the union heads in this town. They will never like competitive sourcing, but maybe we can address some of their concerns.

The fact of the matter is nine out of 10 competitions are being won by the in-house team. So claims of unfairness don't necessarily resonate right now. We need to make sure there are no systemic problems that are causing an unfair advantage for either side. If there are, we will take them on.

GCN: What is the status of the rule asking agencies to justify the use of time-and-materials contracting?

SAFAVIAN: The comment period closed Nov. 19. We are synthesizing all the comments. We need to get the guidance out to the agencies to give them a better understanding of when we think time and materials is appropriate and when we think it might not be. Obviously, we have a bias against time-and-materials contracts.

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