Academics urge Congress to go beyond acquisition panel proposals

Researchers characterize recommendations as careful, say bid protests and other accountability measures should apply to all purchases.

The recent recommendations of an acquisition panel represent useful steps but should be pushed further to improve federal buying, according to two procurement law professors.

In a paper on emerging contracting policy and practices, Steven Schooner and Chris Yukins, co-directors of The George Washington University's Procurement Law Center, reviewed suggestions made by panelists on the Services Acquisition Reform Act Advisory Committee. The group was convened under the 2004 Defense Authorization Act to look at government buying practices.

The professors commended the SARA panel, as it is known, for identifying and addressing the shrinking acquisition workforce, an "explosion" in service contracting that has outpaced growth in purchases of products, a tendency for agencies to favor large firms and the increased use of orders placed through large umbrella contracts.

"With few notable exceptions, the proposed reforms were careful and incremental, which also means they were neither revolutionary nor terribly controversial," the researchers wrote. "The panel compromised where a less compromising approach -- based upon traditional principles of competition, transparency and accountability -- might prove more effective."

Schooner and Yukins agreed with the basic tenets of accountability and transparency behind a series of panel recommendations on public notice, bid protests and rules for smaller contacts.

But the academics urged that all purchases -- not just those worth more than $5 million -- be subject to guidelines for a clear statement of requirements, disclosure of bid evaluation criteria, reasonable response time and documentation of the award decision. They noted that the Defense Department already applies many of those requirements to interagency purchases worth more than $100,000.

They also suggested that all high-value interagency purchases -- for example, those exceeding $25,000 or $100,000 -- be subject to pre-award public notice. Additionally, they recommended that agencies offer a debriefing to disappointed bidders after any award, and that all purchases be open to protest.

In its deliberations, the SARA panel weighed the advantages of many of these measures against the increased time and effort necessary to take them. Many in industry and government argue that expanding the number of contracts subject to such rules would slow the already stressed federal procurement system to a crawl.

In regard to capacity, Schooner and Yukins praised the panel's decision to discuss the federal acquisition workforce despite the fact that it fell outside the group's original mandate. "The panel persuasively argued that acquisition workforce problems permeate most, if not all, of the issues before the panel," they wrote.

The Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy recently announced a survey that will let procurement officials anonymously assess their skills and work roles as part of a "comprehensive workforce planning effort." The survey will begin next month.

The Defense Department also is working on an assessment of its acquisition workforce, using a modeling tool that will collect data on the capabilities of individual employees and synthesize it to provide a high-level view for workforce planning purposes. Shay Assad, director of Defense procurement and acquisition policy, has said that tool will be completed this month.

Schooner and Yukins are the latest to weigh in on the panel's recommendations, released in draft form in late December with just a two-week comment period. The final version has yet to be published, but industry groups have already commented, panelists have testified before Congress, and recent acquisition legislation in the House and Senate has incorporated elements of the proposals.