Devil is in the details regarding Defense spending guidance

Defense Department plans to increase competition and cut overhead costs and red tape associated with procuring goods and services have mainly met with praise from industry leaders and lawmakers -- the two constituencies most able to derail reform. But full support will depend on implementation details that Pentagon officials are still working out.

Reps. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., and Mike Conaway, R-Texas, longtime proponents of acquisition reform at the Pentagon, praised Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his top acquisition official Ashton B. Carter for issuing guidance earlier this week aimed at increasing productivity and efficiency in spending.

"We applaud Secretary Gates and Dr. Carter for tackling acquisition reform and for embracing many of the reforms identified in our panel's report and in the House-passed IMPROVE Acquisition Act to meet this end," they said in a joint statement, adding, "We must learn more about the department's plans in the weeks ahead, but we look forward to working with DoD on these efforts."

Likewise, Aerospace Industries President Marion Blakey welcomed the initiative and the department's outreach to industry in developing the new objectives. "While we have questions regarding some of the proposals, we are confident that the cooperation between government and industry as these initiatives are developed and implemented will produce results that will benefit all stakeholders -- most importantly, the warfighter and taxpayer."

"I don't think there's much objection to the objective," said Stan Soloway, president and chief executive of the Professional Services Council, an industry trade group. "The message has been they want to be collaborative. The message has been this is not about arbitrarily cutting; it's about finding better ways to do business."

Nonetheless, industry officials are concerned about some aspects of the reforms. "One area where I do have concern, not covered in [Carter's] memo, is you have the secretary's directive to lop off 10 percent of at least some category of service contracting. That seems to run contrary to the strategic approach of the Carter guidance," Soloway said.

Another issue of concern to service contractors is the question of competition. Carter noted that 28 percent of competitive awards for service contracts had only a single bidder and department officials believe they need to inject more competition into those procurements.

"I don't disagree that they ought to be doing whatever they can to maximize the competition. That is clearly the right objective," Soloway said. But it's not unexpected that some percentage of contracts, especially for work that is being rebid, would not attract more than one bidder if the incumbent contractor is understood to be performing well.

"You're not going to spend your bid and proposal dollars to compete for something where the chances of winning and unseating the incumbent are really extreme. But that pressure is nonetheless always on the incumbent because they know if they stumble there's any number of predators ready to pounce," Soloway said.

Contracting officials should make sure their requirements and performance work statements invite innovation, and thereby attract increased competition, he said. "The government talks about innovation, but it's not at all clear at the end of the day if that's what's they're rewarding," he said.

Soloway worries budget pressure is driving many contract awards away from best value bidders to lowest-cost bidders.

"In a tight budget environment, the tendency is to squeeze every nickel you can out of something, but that doesn't necessarily go along with looking for more innovation and better value," he said.

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