Greg Rothwell | Better buys at DHS

Interview with Greg Rothwell, former chief procurement officer of the Homeland Security Department

Greg Rothwell

Greg Rothwell, recently retired as chief procurement officer of the Homeland Security Department, spent three decades in the federal government ' including the last two years with DHS ' building a reputation among federal and industry officials for his honesty and integrity. He worked for 34 years in 10 different agencies, including 10 years at the IRS.

Rothwell, a hearty 55, expects to remain a figure in the federal procurement scene, working in the private sector. After retiring last month, he offered some perspective on DHS procurement and government purchasing in general.

GCN: Do you think that the Homeland Security Department suffers from a shortage of expert procurement staff? What steps did you take to strengthen the procurement staff during your tenure?

Rothwell: When I first arrived at DHS there were seven procurement shops in the department that came from the legacy agencies. At that point, I conducted a review of the staff of all seven and determined that several were significantly understaffed.

As a result, I brought the personnel shortages in some of the procurement shops to the attention of the department's senior leadership. The ones that were most severely understaffed were Customs and Border Protection, the Transportation Security Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

This [need to get more procurement personnel] was very much supported and we were given improved authority.

In addition, I had to create the headquarters procurement shop, called the Office of Procurement Operations. On Jan. 8, 2004, that organization had zero people ' we now have authorization to go to 220 staff members.

GCN: What challenges did you face in building a freestanding procurement staff for DHS?

Rothwell: Basically, getting the staffing approval and hiring right people. We also had to create unified agency procedures.

The seven procurement shops came from many different agencies ' the Transportation, Treasury and Justice departments, for example. We issued unified regulations that caused all of the procurement shops to have common buying procedures.

GCN: What steps do you think current and future procurement officials can take to manage the risk of large IT procurements?

Rothwell: It's basically having the appropriate staffing. You have to have the correct number of people, the correct training, the correct leadership and the correct philosophy of communicating with industry.

GCN: What is your philosophy of communicating with industry?

Rothwell: We have critical missions, important to the country, that we need the private sector to assist us on. The only way we can get the private sector [on board is via] the procurement process. The only way to make that effective requires a lot of communication.

GCN: Do you see differences in styles among the ways agencies communicate with industry?

Rothwell: There are certainly different styles. The direction seem to be moving toward more communication.

GCN: Do you see any evidence of some middle-sized systems integrators progressively being squeezed out of the federal marketplace by large companies?

Rothwell: I don't see any evidence of that. But we have to be concerned that they have opportunities to participate in the federal marketplace.

GCN: How did you instill the officials of the department's eight separate procurement offices with a set of common goals and a united vision?

Rothwell: I created a council called the Chief Acquisition Officers Council. The council consisted of myself, my deputy Elaine Duke [now acting chief procurement officer of DHS] and the top persons in the eight procurement shops ' a 10-person council.

The council met monthly or more often as needed. Beyond creating the council was building relationships with the leadership of the eight procurement shops.

GCN: Did you find that the different procurement shops reflected the different cultures of their parent organizations, say, for example, the military culture of the Coast Guard and the law enforcement culture of the Secret Service?

Rothwell: There is a cultural element. But the core mission is to support the federal acquisition process. Each of the eight [procurement offices] supported that mission, sometimes in different ways, but with the same core value.

GCN: Did the department ever consider simply merging the eight offices into one office?

Rothwell: It was considered very early on and the decision was made not to do it. The advantage of retaining them that was articulated was the need to retain command integrity'meaning you hire somebody to be head of one shop [and keep that person there].

GCN: Do you feel, in retrospect, that DHS had too many back-seat drivers, especially in the area of procurement, demanding reports and oversight, that got in the way of achieving goals efficiently?

Rothwell: I don't think so. DHS is brand new. I thought the oversight was appropriate. I only had to testify twice in three years.

GCN: Some offices within the department, such as the real estate acquisition teams, appeared to face particularly severe pressures and suffer high turnover. Were there other pressure points in the procurement system, especially in IT?

Rothwell: The problem was just the lack of staffing. The consequence was to use other agencies to do procurement.

GCN: If you are referring to DHS' use of the National Institutes of Health's CIO Solutions Partners 2 governmentwide acquisition contract procurement process, did that increase costs?

Rothwell: Yes, I believe it does increase cost and you lose some control of the process. It becomes more about process than results.

GCN: Are you confident that the federal government, as it now is evolving, will retain the skills to understand the IT it is buying?

Rothwell: It is clearly one of the challenges. It is clearly recognized that it must retain the skills. You must maintain prudent staffing levels. The difficult part is getting the authorization to hire. Then you face the challenge getting good people.

GCN: If there was one thing, or a handful of things, about DHS that could have been changed during your tenure that would have made IT purchasing more economical and efficient, what would it have been?

Rothwell: I would have liked to see more consolidation in the IT area in terms of contract vehicles. If you think about it, agencies get budgets that are typically less than they need. If you can stretch their IT budgets by strategic sourcing, it can be very helpful ' say you if you need to buy 10,000 computers and they cost a million dollars. If you use strategic sourcing you [could] get them for $500,000, for example.

GCN: What challenges do you think await your successor?

Rothwell: My advice would be always focus on the mission. The reason we do procurement is to complete the mission. The goal is to focus on results not process. The goal is to award contracts to support the mission, not to go through the 22 steps required in the procurement process.

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