Sizing Up Procurement Shops

The challenge for federal acquisition officials these days is to convince top managers that they are "with the program." A frequent complaint is that procurement folks are wedded to outmoded procedures and fail to see the big picture-the agency's mission. Concerns about acquisition offices are abundant, but data to track their performance are scarce.

Criticism comes from a number of quarters. The political ranks see agency performance being put on hold while procurement staffs fret and chafe over contracting procedures.

Program officials, who themselves may have spent months debating contract requirements, get frustrated when their solution meets roadblocks in the procurement shop. "We know what we want, why can't they just get it for us?" they cry. Other complaints question the competence of contract specialists: "We get different answers if we talk to different people," or, "These people are basically clerks, and they don't understand what we are trying to do."

Dodging the System

The bureaucracy has ways of dealing with these impediments. Like the supervisor who redistributes the workload to keep the nonperformer out of the mix, the program office often tries to minimize interaction with the procurement shop. In some cases, just one or two program staffers become the designated conduit. In others, people with both contracting and program skills are hired to eliminate the need for the procurement office's specialized expertise. Moreover, any procurement vehicle that offers a quick turnaround becomes the answer, whether it's appropriate or not.

In some ways, these problems reinforce outcomes that new acquisition legislation is meant to foster. General Services Administration schedules and multiple-award task order contracts are aimed at speeding up and simplifying the process. The government IMPAC card, which allows program officials to make small purchases with minimum rigamarole, is a bureaucracy-buster as well. The idea is to put the decision-making directly and easily in the program official's hands.

However, for large buys, contracting officials still carry the warrants that let agencies acquire goods and services. For lots of reasons, shifting that authority is unlikely.

In spite of reforms, a heavy dose of regulation remains to preserve competition and the integrity of the process. Therefore, attempting an end run around the procurement office produces no more than a second best solution. For the situation to change, however, procurement offices need to produce results that can assure their political leaders and program office collaborators that they are best equipped to handle the task.

Measuring Up

To succeed, procurement offices first need to know what the rest of the agency thinks of their performance. Second, they need hard data on how they are doing and an ability to show how they measure up against others in the same business. If program officials understood what norms exist, it would be easier for them to recognize performance.

The Center for Advanced Purchasing Studies (CAPS) at Arizona State University has created benchmarks for many private and public entities, including the automotive, banking and mining industries, municipalities, and state and county governments. For state and county governments, for example, the criteria include the number of active suppliers per purchasing employee, the average purchase order cycle time, and the dollar value of purchases per purchasing employee. The data include results on best and worst performers, though not by name. While the benchmarks aren't tied directly to federal experience, they provide a useful model for developing parallel standards.

In fact, GSA's Federal Procurement Data Center has been working on a prototype it calls the Federal Procurement Performance Measurement System. The center hopes to produce an annual report on benchmarks that will address such areas as cycle time, performance effectiveness and workload statistics, using CAPS research as a guide.

Some of the data already are collected through the Federal Procurement Data System, but agencies would need to supply the rest. Understandably, procurement offices are skittish about providing operations data. It's another burden for an already overworked staff. In addition, it may produce answers they don't want to hear.

Some, however, are already using a customer service questionnaire developed by the Procurement Executives Association that surveys customers and employees about such areas as timeliness and quality. Knowing how you are doing, with regard to both your customers and comparable organizations, demonstrates a willingness to show your clients that you plan to be among the best.

Allan V. Burman, a former Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator, is president of Jefferson Solutions in Washington.

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