Myth-busting Memo Guides Government Acquisition

March 2, 2011
By Jordan Garegnani, SIGNAL Online Exclusive

A memorandum to federal officials about information sharing during government acquisition processes is opening the lines of communication between agencies and vendors. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) memo includes guidelines for comprehensive communication plans, awareness campaigns, education modules and discussion forums, all of which aim at facilitating dialogue.

Prior to a contract award, government-private interaction is regulated to ensure fair treatment of vendors and best value to agencies. However, these complex regulations can be interpreted differently from agency to agency, and many procurement personnel have been interpreting them very strictly rather than taking a chance of breaking the rules. Both multiple interpretations and hypervigilance can result in delaying the procurement process, and protests from competitors or federal investigations have made many acquisition officers resort to less communication to protect their own interests. As a result, the government may not receive the best service or product for its needs.

According to the memo, more than $500 billion is spent annually on contracts making these changes necessary to keep industry operating smoothly and responsibly. The OMB now is introducing measures that not only increase fairness to all potential industry bidders but also enable government personnel to have enough open, detailed discussion with industry to better understand the offerings available while communicating government’s needs accurately.

To improve this dialogue and ensure its continuation, Daniel I. Gordon, administrator, Federal Procurement Policy, requests that each federal agency develop a high-level vendor communication plan. This approach will highlight the differences in agency communication and attempt to make vendor communication straightforward and more universal. Drafts of the plans are due to the OMB by June 30, 2011.

In addition to the written communications plans, an online discussion opened in mid-February where agencies and industry can share common misconceptions, concerns and success stories. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) and E-Gov will launch an online Community of Practice (COP) by June 2011, which will serve as a go-to page. The organizations plan to provide additional communications strategies, do’s and don’ts, frequently asked questions, case studies and other tools to improve engagement.

Gordon also is calling for an awareness and education campaign. The OFPP will work with the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI), the Defense Acquisition University and agency training practitioners to eliminate unnecessary barriers to engagement. The FAI is developing a continuous training model for contracting officers, program managers, procurement attorneys and others. This training should be available early in the third quarter of FY 2011 on the FAI website.

Mimi Browning, president of Browning Consulting Group and previous deputy chief information officer for the U.S. Army, thinks the memo moves the acquisition industry in the right direction. “There has always been a gap between government and industry in terms of understanding the acquisitions process,” she says. “Very frankly I think it was a valuable memo that improves the dialogue between government and industry.”

Though the OMB is moving toward better, more available communication, Browning believes it is just the beginning. “I still think there’s a large gap to close in improving government-vendor relations,” she says. “And the proposal in the memo to have a COP is very, very good because it starts the dialogue. I think that will help, along with the various training and government schools … but I still think more could be done.”

Browning believes more people than the memo addressed need to be involved in creating awareness, discussions and trainings. “Whereas the memo right now is just between the government and the private-sector vendors, I think some of the professional organizations should be included,” she states. “[The OMB] targets very general groups. It doesn’t target the CIO community as much, and it doesn’t specifically target senior executives who often have major decision-making parts in government-industry decisions on contracts. There just needs to be more education in that area."

To share ideas about government-industry communication, you are invited to comment on this story and join the discussion at Better Government IT.

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