Procurement policy office maintains low profile

On March 4, President Obama stood in front of a bevy of television cameras and launched one of the most significant contracting reform initiatives in a generation. He was joined by Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag and top acquisition leaders in the House and Senate. Conspicuously absent was the senior political official who would oversee these major procurement changes.

More than four months later, the president had yet to nominate an administrator of federal procurement policy at OMB, and sources suggested the Obama administration was in no rush to name the government's senior executive on contracting-related issues. The reasons for the delay are unclear. OMB officials did not respond to questions from Government Executive about the Office of Federal Procurement Policy nomination and declined a request to interview the acting administrator, Leslie Field, a career official.

Those who have held the administrator position in recent years speculate that with roughly 4,000 political positions to fill-more than a quarter of which will require Senate approval-two wars and a deepening recession, naming a procurement policy chief might not register as a high priority. Others say the lengthy delays in seating a deputy director of management might have caused a ripple effect in filling subordinate offices at OMB, including at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Management consultant Jeffrey Zients was confirmed as deputy director and chief performance officer in June.

Angela Styles, who was President Bush's first OFPP administrator, suggests that the Obama administration might have boxed itself into a corner with its new ethics policy, which prohibits applicants who were once registered lobbyists or whose previous work could present a conflict of interest. "It's slim pickings," Styles says. "I think it's a tough job to sell in some respects, and they have made it substantially harder because of these restrictions."

The administration caused a political brouhaha in February when it granted an ethics waiver to former Raytheon Corp. executive William Lynn to serve as deputy Defense secretary. Obama might be unwilling to go out on a limb again for a position some critics have described as little more than an acquisition cheerleader.

By all accounts, the contracting reform initiative is being led outside of OFPP. The president's memorandum instructs OMB to review the government's use of noncompetitive contracts, the size and capacity of the acquisition workforce, and its policy on the outsourcing of services.

Jeffrey Liebman, OMB's executive associate director, moderated a public meeting in June on the reform proposal, and Orszag has emerged as the administration's go-to voice on a host of acquisition-related issues.

"They may think that they do not need the position to execute the presidential memo," says Styles, who now serves as partner in the government contracts group of the Washington law firm Crowell & Moring. "There must be some reason that this position is not even close to being filled."

Most observers agree the stature and relevance of OFPP has declined in recent years. Past administrators such as Allan Burman, Steven Kelman, David Safavian and Styles raised their profile by taking on a host of high-profile reforms, from streamlining the acquisition process to expanding the use of public-private competitions.

Under the leadership of the media-shy Paul A. Denett-who headed the office from 2006 to mid-2008-OFPP seemed to fade into the shadows. Field, who succeeded Denett in September 2008, is considered a capable and knowledgeable executive, but her ability to influence policy and legislation is limited, contracting observers say.

There are others signs of indifference to the position. Until early July, the leadership chart on the OFPP Web page had not been updated since October 2006 and still listed Denett as administrator, Robert Burton as deputy and Field as a procurement policy analyst.

Burton, a careerist who served two terms as acting administrator at OFPP, said the leadership void is not a pressing concern. Historically, he says, the administrator has not had a strong background in procurement policy or operations and has relied heavily on the office's career staff. In fact, he argues the administrator position should be filled by a career official. "The career executives are well-equipped to handle most of the issues, oftentimes more than the political appointees," says Burton, now a partner at the Washington law firm Venable LLP.

The statutory requirements of the OFPP administrator are fairly minimal, Styles says. Key responsibilities are to serve as a vocal advocate for the acquisition workforce and to make sure the Federal Acquisition Regulation is applied accurately. Styles says the true impact of the role comes from building political connections to influence policy on Capitol Hill and at agencies across the government.

The lack of a political leadership at OFPP has raised some eyebrows among members of the contractor community, who, in the midst of potentially industry-reshaping reforms, lack a single point of contact for questions and concerns.

"This should be a great time for OFPP," said Deidre Lee, who led the office during the first term of the Clinton administration and now serves as executive vice president of federal affairs and operations at the Professional Services Council, a contracting trade association. "The administrator will be able to work with industry and have an immediate impact. But they need the right person, and I would hope it's done quickly."

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