By Brian Hebbel, former CMS Senior Acquisition Director
Since retiring from Government service two years ago, I have noticed a constant buzz that is often heard at industry events or when I talk to Government contractors: Why did the Government do that; What is the Government thinking? Most of the buzz involves potential new procurement opportunities, agency acquisition strategies or evaluation criteria contained in a new procurement. Then there is also a buzz heard from the contracting community when a contractor’s option is not exercised or there are rumors of poor performance. When new opportunities are released or when actions are taken that are considered detrimental to a contractor, there is a feeling that “the hunt is on” or the “sharks start circling”, or insert whatever analogy describes how you see it when Government contractors see a new opportunity at hand. I prefer “the hunt is on” because that is what industry is doing: hunting for new opportunities as they arise that may not have existed the day before. However, through the buzz, rumors and actual new opportunities, many of the activities that take place within Government agencies and contracting offices are often above and beyond industry’s control.
Thank you to CMS for posting its acquisition forecast on a monthly basis. This one new initiative, that has been applauded by industry, has not been implemented on a monthly, or even quarterly basis, by any other agencies’ contracting offices. This activity has been solely under CMS’s control and it has made industry’s quest for information and “what is taking place on the inside” much easier for the contracting community. As a comparison, at the Social Security Administration, information for “outsiders” is rarely available. CMS’s initiative has placed a lot of industry’s hunting activities within its control, helping to determine where and how to hunt. Many of the companies focused on CMS are now not wasting time and money searching for information or scheduling meetings in areas where there is no opportunity to receive a contract award. At SSA, there is a similar result however here, companies don’t waste their time and resources trying to penetrate the iron curtain. In this case, the lack of information has created a barrier, rather than direction and transparency companies can utilize to ensure they are using resources in a more efficient and effective manner.
On the other hand, limiting sources on GSA Schedule buys, creating BPAs with a small pool of contractors and using new streamlined acquisition techniques feed industry questions about what’s taking place inside the walls of the Government. Generally, contracting officers like competition, just not too much of it. Too much competition significantly slows down the acquisition process/schedule and hinders the contracting professional’s ability to award contracts in timelines agreed to with program offices. The acquisition schedule clock, otherwise known as Procurement Action Lead Time (PALT), doesn’t begin until the contracting offices receive the procurement package/paperwork.
I’ve surveyed a half dozen agency and department procurement executives in the past year, and this concern was true for each. It is problematic for the boots on- the-ground contracting staff to have too much competition to consider because each agency’s contract award schedule/clock begins when the contracting staff receives the procurement package. And, when they receive it, they are often already behind schedule to make a timely award. So what does all of this mean to industry? In general, contracting offices are almost always in a hurry to award a procurement, often for reasons beyond the procurement staff’s control. Working “on the inside,” it was always very frustrating receiving procurement packages late, having the staff’s acquisition schedule jam packed, and having no relief on the dates to award the contract/task order. This is one reason contracting officials might award a contract using streamlined procurement methods, including the aforementioned limiting competition of GSA Schedules, creating BPAs to limit competition, extending existing contracts, making a new award by performing a logical follow-on, or eliminating Past Performance from the evaluation criteria.
Departments/agencies are also being nudged/forced to comply with the Office of Management and Budget targets for using Best-In-Class Vehicles. The Best-In-Class (BIC) acquisition goals are creating upheaval for agency officials and industry alike. The OMB March 24,2019 memo, M-19-13, titled: “Category Management: Making Smarter Use of Common Contract Solutions and Practices” lays out the guidance for agencies. The first goal OMB has laid out is as follows: 1. “Annually establish goals to reduce unaligned spending and increase the use of BICs for common goods and services, consistent with statutory socio-economic responsibilities.” How does this memo impact what is taking place on the inside? As a result of this “guidance” memo, agencies’ buying patterns began to change significantly in FY 2019. Individual Agency Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) contracts that contractors fought over and spent a lot of time and money to be on, may no longer be used. IDIQ contracts, limited to a department or agency, may not be considered the highest level BIC vehicles. This means their use will most likely dwindle. I was even told by a small business that one particular agency was no longer awarding individual contracts to 8(a) contractors, but only using GSA STARS to make 8(a) awards, as the result of this memo. If you haven’t read this memo, you had better do so. I would also recommend that you talk to your targeted Agency officials to understand how the BIC acquisition goal may be changing their buying patterns. It will vary from agency to agency.
So what’s taking place on the inside? How much control do Government contractors have controlling activities taking place inside agencies? In reality, not a lot. However, due to the inside and outside influences described above, Government contracting offices have a lot of activities and guidelines that do not enable them to have as much control on the acquisition process as you may think. As a result, they are tasked to be creative to make timely awards for each fiscal year and the contracting community is left wondering “Why did they do that?” Hopefully now you have a slightly better understanding of what’s going on in the inside.
ABOUT BRIAN HEBBEL
Brian Hebbel had more than34 years of Federal contracting experience, prior to his retirement in 2017. He was a Senior Acquisition Official (Group Director) at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, Office of Acquisition and Grants Management. Prior to his retirement, he was the longest serving contracting official at CMS, and provided oversight to three contracting divisions awarding $1,500,000,000 in contract awards in FY 2017 and providing guidance to acquisition strategies and schedules, solicitation requirements, source selection and resolving complex contracting issues. He is an author of “How to Market & Sell to the U.S. Government, A View from the Inside”. Brian is the President of BARC Business Advisors LLC, to Bring Acquisition Results to Contractors (BARC).