Services acquisition reform panel to convene

A much anticipated panel slated to ascertain what federal procurement offices could learn from private sector contracting practices will hold its first meeting in less than two weeks.

The Feb. 9 meeting, announced in Thursday's Federal Register, will be open to the public and organizational matters will top the agenda. Little "discussion of substantive procurement-related topics" is expected, the notice stated.

Thursday's announcement has been a long time in coming. The statutory language mandating the panel originated in the 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act introduced by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., as stand-alone legislation and later tacked onto the 2004 Defense Authorization Act. The language, enacted in November 2003, required the Office of Management and Budget's procurement chief to name at least nine "recognized [acquisition] experts" to undertake a year-long policy review.

Davis asked the panel to look over federal procurement laws, regulations and practices and recommend any changes necessary to ensure "effective and appropriate use of commercial practices and performance based contracting." Panelists are to report their findings to OMB's procurement administrator and the armed services and government reform committees in both the House and Senate.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy within OMB was to select the members in 90 days, but the process took more than a year. While Davis would have liked to see the panel convene sooner, he is "not terribly upset by the delay," said Drew Crockett, one of his spokesmen.

Davis commends OFPP for "crafting what should be a diverse, experienced and knowledgeable panel," Crockett added. But he would not say who is on the panel. Panelists contacted for this story also declined to comment until OFPP has officially announced the members.

The panel's makeup is of paramount interest to groups concerned that Davis designed it to advance his procurement agenda, which includes expanding the government's use of controversial share-in-savings contracts, where contractors agree to finance projects up front if agencies later give them a cut of any savings generated. Davis will not meddle in the panel's deliberations or findings, Crockett said.

But the panel cannot provide any meaningful analysis of procurement policy unless it includes "outspoken critics" of Davis' agenda, said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a watchdog group. "If Davis is so certain that these are great ideas, he should be willing to allow an open and honest debate," she said.

Steven Kelman, former OFPP administrator and a professor at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, argued that panelists should, however, accept the basic premise that the government can learn from the private sector. "Since the specific mandate of the panel is to look for ways that good commercial business practices could be applied, I'd like to see people who are sympathetic to that underlying idea," he said.

The panel should pay close attention to how private sector companies design performance metrics when contracting for services, Kelman said. Panelists also should look at the incentive systems used by commercial companies and may want to re-evaluate the government's use of time and materials contracts, he said. But he added that he doesn't think the panel should "be looking particularly to suggest any legal changes."

Procurement administrator David Safavian was unable to respond to a request for comment Thursday. In a recent interview with Government Executive, he listed getting the "Section 1423" panel off the ground as one of his top procurement priorities.

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