While much of Washington’s energy is appropriately focusing on the President’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2012, there was a release from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that is worthy of attention from those who want to do business with the federal government and those who procure services for Uncle Sam.
On February 2, 2011, Daniel Gordon, OMB’s Administrator for Federal Procurement Policy, released a 13-page Memorandum for Chief Acquisition Officers, Senior Procurement Executives and Chief Information Officers. The subject was “Myth-Busting”: Addressing misconceptions to Improve Communications with Industry during the Acquisition Process.
Now, I realize this subject matter for most people has about all of the excitement of watching paint dry, but if you are someone who has tried to do business with the federal government, this memo speaks directly to you. To say there are obstacles in trying to have a conversation with a potential federal customer about what your company may be able to offer to a federal department would be an understatement. In many cases, you might have a more rewarding conversation with a brick wall because that is about the amount of dialogue and exchange that seems to exist between customers and providers.
The end result of these on-going conditions are: ill-definition of customer requirements; lack of appreciation for what technologies and services are available and what they can do; program/contract mismanagement; cost overruns; and news headlines that do no one any favors. All you have to do is take a good look at the history of DHS to see any number of examples of where these conditions have been allowed to exist and in many cases graduate to a full cascading bloom. It does not have to be this way.
As someone who has had the privilege of working with the homeland security industry in the public and private sectors, I’ve witnessed first hand the behaviors and attitudes that prevent both sides from engaging in meaningful dialogue with one another. Institutional attitudes, bureaucratic processes, overburdened schedules, unrealistic expectations, and so forth all seem to come together to prevent meaningful engagement from occurring between those who want to provide products, services, and technologies to the government and those who need them to do the jobs the American people want and need. If you can’t engage in even the most simple of conversations with someone without putting up any number of excuses and barriers to making them happen, how can you ever hope to do anything productive with one another?
Today’s climate of conversation and dialogue between industry and the government is abysmal. Processes that have been put in place to channel conversations between industry and government seem to be doing more harm than good. If you talk with people who regularly attend Industry Days on potential work with the government, it is not uncommon to hear them express frustration at the level of information that is presented. It’s also not uncommon to hear government personnel who lead Industry Days express similar frustrations at not being able to say more or engage with industry. Rather than go through the conventional “check-the-box” exercises, the time has come for a reexamination of how industry providers and government purchasers communicate with one another.
That is what this OMB memo lays out. In detailing the 10 most prominent misconceptions, Gordon’s memo takes head on the prevailing reasons (what some might call excuses) that prevent meaningful exchanges between the Executive Branch departments, agencies and those who can help them do their job. The candor that OMB commits here is something far overdue and frankly ought to be widely applauded. If anything, this 13-page directive will put federal departments and agencies on the defensive on their existing attitudes and actions if they continue to operate in their status quo. Gordon and OMB have stripped away the long-standing and institutional arguments to engage industry in favor of a “call to communicate.” OMB has been called many things in all of its years of existence, but “proactive communicators” is a new moniker that they seem willing to adopt and action that they seem to want to have happen.
The challenge now, before government purchasers and those who want to provide services and products, is how to implement OMB’s guidance. There are legitimate reasons why there are rules and established procedures as to how government and industry communicate when it comes to making potential purchases. Ethics, fairness, value and integrity have to be at the forefront of those efforts and can be if both sides respect one another. It is when one side goes too far, either in pushing boundaries or not respecting the established rules (and common sense), that things go off the tracks.
It is completely understandable that senior government program managers do not have the time to meet with every vendor that has something that they want to sell. It is also understandable that senior government program managers and procurement officials do not want to do anything that might be seen as creating a reason for a contract award protest, a conflict of interest ruling or be seen as favoring one company over another. The problem has now become that we’ve made it so challenging to talk to one another that we aren’t saying anything that can provide the value that taxpayers want and deserve. That has to change, and this OMB memo is a great place for us to start the process of rebuilding the vital relationship between government purchasers and those who stand ready to provide them with what they need.
I’ve described the state of the homeland security industry as one of resigned frustration. I’m not backing off that description either, especially given the feedback many readers have shared with me in response to that post or the details that my friend and former DHS colleague, Doug Doan, shared in a separate Security Debrief piece earlier this week. He sees things in even more stark terms, and I have no reason to disagree with him. The facts are starting to stack up, and the trends are more than worthy of concern on all sides.
Thanks to Gordon’s OMB memo, I at least feel there is someone at senior enough levels in the government who recognizes that we have a tremendous problem and is putting forward some remedies to make the situation better. I cannot remember a time when I ever felt hopeful about something coming out of OMB. I will feel even better if the federal departments and agencies follow through on what it says and industry does its part too.