White House urged to downplay politics in hunt for procurement chief

The White House would be smart to emphasize procurement expertise over political connections when appointing a replacement for acquisition chief David Safavian, observers said in recent interviews.

Safavian was arrested on criminal charges last week and resigned from the Office of Management and Budget effective Sept. 16. Robert Burton has stepped in as acting administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy until the White House finds a permanent replacement.

"Sadly, [Safavian's arrest] follows right on the heels of the [Michael] Brown incident at the Federal Emergency Management Agency," said Steven Schooner, a George Washington University professor specializing in procurement law. "It would be easy to suggest that this is another example of someone who was appointed to a position for political reasons rather than subject-matter expertise."

Safavian's appointment to head OFPP came as somewhat of a surprise to the procurement community. At the time of his appointment, Safavian was chief of staff at the General Services Administration and was known for his Capitol Hill and lobbying experience. Little was known about his views on acquisition issues.

"He was very astute politically," Schooner said. "But he was by no means the leading light in the procurement field. Anytime someone like him is appointed to the job, it diminishes the stature of OFPP in the eyes of the procurement community."

But at his confirmation hearings and during his relatively short tenure at OFPP, Safavian expressed a strong interest in policy matters ranging from improved training for acquisition professionals to the expansion of opportunities for small companies to win government business. He also encouraged agencies to analyze spending patterns and use the information to negotiate better deals on bulk purchases-a practice known as "strategic sourcing."

Safavian, confirmed as the OFPP administrator in November 2004, has been accused of making false statements to federal investigators regarding his interactions with a lobbyist while at GSA. He has also been accused of obstructing a federal investigation.

The incident should encourage the White House to appoint an administrator known for expertise in the procurement field, said Danielle Brian, executive director for the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington-based watchdog group. "There are certain positions that really need to be [filled] by professionals who know what they're doing and not just a political hack," she said.

But Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va.-based group representing contractors, said the administrator should understand the role of the procurement system, but need not be a "walking encyclopedia of the acquisition regulations" or an "acquisition geek." Leadership skills are more important, he said.

Labor unions have seized on the vacancy to push for OFPP to revamp policies on competitive sourcing, a controversial management agenda item encouraging agencies to consider outsourcing jobs classified as commercial. Union officials have claimed that Safavian strong-armed agencies into placing certain numbers of jobs up for competition, even though OMB officially abandoned quotas several years ago. Safavian also got involved in specific procurements, the American Federation of Government Employees claimed in a statement on his arrest. The union cited an incident where OMB encouraged the U.S. Mint to reopen a public-private competition that hadn't attracted much attention from small or local businesses.

"Clearly, regardless of which party is in power or who is OFPP administrator, it is just good sense for a political appointee such as Mr. Safavian, a former corporate lobbyist, to not interfere with specific executive branch procurements," said John Threlkeld, a lobbyist for AFGE.

Safavian's departure will leave a leadership void at OFPP, but Burton is well qualified to hold the job in the interim, Chvotkin said: "Rob has been there before--he's a seasoned veteran." Burton headed OFPP for the 14 months between Angela Styles' departure in September 2003 and Safavian's confirmation.

"Rob Burton is well suited to - in the interim - continue the progress that OFPP has made," said Carl DeMaio, president of the Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank. He declined to comment on Safavian's arrest.

After watching Safavian's experience, some otherwise-qualified candidates from outside government acquisition circles may be reluctant to accept a nomination to head OFPP, Chvotkin said. The vetting and Senate confirmation process is lengthy and difficult, he said, adding that any problems with Safavian's background should have come up during that process.

"If there's a gap [in qualifications], it should show up in the vetting," Chvotkin said. "[Safavian's] position [and lobbying connections] were well-known."

The former procurement chief plans to fight the charges, his lawyer has said. He is scheduled to appear in court on Oct. 7.

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