VA aims to make acquisition rules more user-friendly

The Veterans Affairs Department recently proposed a "plain language rewrite" to clarify its acquisition rules, and suggested new restrictions that some industry observers say could prove burdensome for contractors.

In a Federal Register notice published on Jan. 13, the department recommended numerous changes to the VA Acquisition Regulation in an effort to improve efficiency and make the rules easier to understand. The changes also would make VA regulation more consistent with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which it supplements.

The majority of the changes are geared toward making the rules simpler, in keeping with a series of plain language principles adopted in 1998. Several of them address redundancies or conflicts with the overarching federal acquisition guidelines.

But the department also suggested adding several new clauses, including ones that address organizational conflicts of interest and the acquisition of many commercially available items.

This means that the proposed revisions could be a mixed blessing for businesses seeking to initiate work with the VA, said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va.-based group representing federal contractors.

"These are positive initiatives, and bless 'em for doing it," Chvotkin said of the effort to introduce plain language. But some of the other changes could scare off prospective bidders, he said, adding that this is a particular concern for small businesses.

The new rules propose that clauses about organizational conflicts of interest, which are now automatically included in certain types of solicitations, be routinely included in more categories. "This is a peanut butter approach -- you spread it across everything and see what sticks, rather than seeing what particular contracts require it," Chvotkin said. A more targeted approach could result in more meaningful responses from companies, he said.

The proposed changes also would allow more clauses to be added to contracts for commercial items, raising the possibility that the agreements would routinely be much longer than they are now.

"Congress's underlying policy is that you use the minimum number of clauses for commercial items procurement, to attract companies that are not traditional government contractors," Chvotkin said. "So the more clauses you add, the more you get the companies having second thoughts."

Chvotkin praised a provision in the rewrite that would shorten the time lag between performance and payment for small business contracts in an effort to ease the burden on cash flow that can result from working with the federal government. Efrain J. Fernandez, VA's associate deputy assistant secretary for acquisitions, said the agency revised the VA Acquisition Regulation "because it was very outdated and did not reflect current thinking ... Our acquisition program supports VA's fundamental mission of caring for our nation's veterans as well as our business partners [in other government agencies]. We take this responsibility very seriously."

Comments on the proposed changes are due to the VA by March 14, and should be sent by e-mail to VARegulations@va.gov via the Internet, by fax to (202) 273-9515, or by mail to:

Director, Regulations Management (00REG1)
Department of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Ave. NW, Room 1068
Washington, DC 20420

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