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Don't get cynical. Yet.

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Vern Edwards


On March 4, the White House Office of the Press Secretary released a memo from the president to the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies⎯Subject: Government Contracting. Here are some highlights and my reactions.

Since 2001, spending on Government contracts has more than doubled, reaching over $500 billion in 2008. During this same period, there has been a significant increase in the dollars awarded without full and open competition and an increase in the dollars obligated through cost-reimbursement contracts. Between fiscal years 2000 and 2008, for example, dollars obligated under cost-reimbursement contracts nearly doubled, from $71 billion in 2000 to $135 billion in 2008. Reversing these trends away from full and open competition and toward cost-reimbursement contracts could result in savings of billions of dollars each year for the American taxpayer.

BFOTO. (Brilliant for Observing the Obvious, pronounced: buh-foe′-toe.) Uh, Mr. President, you might want to consider that we were seriously attacked in 2001, then we began fighting a couple of wars in nasty far away places, and then we had a really big hurricane, which was followed by a host of unusually intense natural disasters⎯fires, floods, and tornadoes?⎯all of which tend to call for urgent contracting, which makes planning hard, which tends to mean more noncompetitive and cost-reimbursement, time-and-materials, and labor-hour awards. I mean, these haven't exactly been "normal" times of late.

It is the policy of the Federal Government that executive agencies shall not engage in noncompetitive contracts except in those circumstances where their use can be fully justified and where appropriate safeguards have been put in place to protect the taxpayer.

In addition, there shall be a preference for fixed-price type contracts. Cost-reimbursement contracts shall be used only when circumstances do not allow the agency to define its requirements sufficiently to allow for a fixed-price type contract.

Moreover, the Federal Government shall ensure that taxpayer dollars are not spent on contracts that are wasteful, inefficient, subject to misuse, or otherwise not well designed to serve the Federal Government's needs and to manage the risk associated with the goods and services being procured.

The Federal Government must have sufficient capacity to manage and oversee the contracting process from start to finish, so as to ensure that taxpayer funds are spent wisely and are not subject to excessive risk.

Finally, the Federal Government must ensure that those functions that are inherently governmental in nature are performed by executive agencies and are not outsourced.

Yeah? So? What's new?

When awarding Government contracts, the Federal Government must strive for an open and competitive process. However, executive agencies must have the flexibility to tailor contracts to carry out their missions and achieve the policy goals of the Government. In certain exigent circumstances, agencies may need to consider whether a competitive process will not accomplish the agency's mission. In such cases, the agency must ensure that the risks associated with noncompetitive contracts are minimized.

Just as we thought! Noncompetitive awards are not okay. Unless they are.

I hereby direct the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), in collaboration with the Secretary of Defense, the Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Administrator of General Services, the Director of the Office of Personnel Management, and the heads of such other agencies as the Director of OMB determines to be appropriate, and with the participation of appropriate management councils and program management officials, to develop and issue by July 1, 2009, Government-wide guidance to assist agencies in reviewing, and creating processes for ongoing review of, existing contracts in order to identify contracts that are wasteful, inefficient, or not otherwise likely to meet the agency's needs, and to formulate appropriate corrective action in a timely manner. Such corrective action may include modifying or canceling such contracts in a manner and to the extent consistent with applicable laws, regulations, and policy.

I further direct the Director of OMB, in collaboration with the aforementioned officials and councils, and with input from the public, to develop and issue by September 30, 2009, Government-wide guidance to:

(1) govern the appropriate use and oversight of sole-source and other types of noncompetitive contracts and to maximize the use of full and open competition and other competitive procurement processes;

(2) govern the appropriate use and oversight of all contract types, in full consideration of the agency's needs, and to minimize risk and maximize the value of Government contracts generally, consistent with the regulations to be promulgated pursuant to section 864 of Public Law 110-417;

(3) assist agencies in assessing the capacity and ability of the Federal acquisition workforce to develop, manage, and oversee acquisitions appropriately; and

(4) clarify when governmental outsourcing for services is and is not appropriate, consistent with section 321 of Public Law 110-417 (31 U.S.C. 501 note)."

Oboy. More "guidance" from the top, when what we really need is leadership and smart, bold action.

Okay, so they're rounding up the usual suspects. Look, I think our new president is a very smart guy who has a lot of very smart folks working for him, and I wish them all well, but from a professional's point of view, the memo is silly. I'm going to be generous and assume that it's merely for public consumption and is not reflective of the quality of thinking about contracting operations that we can expect in the future. I still have hope. Heck, it's only a memo. Let's not give up too soon.

(With appreciation to DJ Bleckley for "BFOTO.")

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I think this memo was more for public consumption than for the professionals as it was meant to fulfill one of his campaign promises. The guidance that comes out July 1st will give us a glimpse as to what level of thinking and seriousness we can expect. On a side point, I found it funny that in the third point OMB is directed to "assist agencies in assessing the capacity and ability...", as opposed to actually assisting agencies in acquiring the capacity and ability needed in the workforce.

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