No Surprises

Civilian agencies fumbled emergency procurements last year; now they’re looking ahead so they’ll be prepared.

Civilian agencies fumbled emergency procurements last year; now they're looking ahead so they'll be prepared.

Problems with emergency contracting battered civilian procurement offices shortly after Hurricane Katrina swept through Louisiana. Mounting procurement demands underscored the need for more training in how to apply simplified emergency acquisition rules.

Next time, agencies will be more prepared, at least on paper. At the request of the Office of Management and Budget's procurement policy arm, the Federal Acquisition Regulation recently got a new chapter devoted exclusively to emergency contracting capabilities. For the first time, contracting officers can scroll to the end of the voluminous document during emergencies instead of picking through each section. The chapter, introduced in its interim stage in July, also will feature heavily in a new emergency contracting course at the Federal Acquisition Institute at Fort Belvoir, Va.

"When we sent [acquisition volunteers] down to the Gulf Coast . . . a lot never had any experience in an emergency environment. They simply did not know what was available to them," says Robert Burton, associate administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

At the same time, the Chief Acquisition Officers Council is putting together an online directory of interagency contracts that can be used in emergency situations. "One of the challenges in Katrina is that agencies did not know what other agencies had already in place," says Burton.

The sudden demand for emergency contracts added pressure to a world already creaking under the weight of mammoth pacts for buying services. Like a diligent dieter ruined by a bounteous buffet, agencies were forced to spend money quickly and sometimes let go of other initiatives such as strategic sourcing. This year, barring additional emergencies, they'll be heading back to basics: more training, more strategic sourcing, and in some cases more in-house contract awards, as opposition to massive interagency contracts mounts.

At a recent acquisition conference in McLean, Va., Glenn Perry, director of contracts and acquisition management at the Education Department, told an audience of contractors that his agency became a heavy user of governmentwide contracts because, in theory, they save time and money. "Today, we realize . . . we're having to spend more resources to get the right [governmentwide contract]," he said. Another problem, he said, is that multiagency contracts often are designed from the perspective of the agency that creates them and not for the other users.

Many contractors also would be happy to see fewer megacontracts. Large, multi-agency deals "generate a desire not to participate because business dollars [for bid proposals] are limited," says Michael Del-Colle, senior manager for federal contracts at Accenture in Reston, Va. It costs more to bid on those large contracts, so higher returns are expected, he adds.

Many contractors also are hoping the General Services Administration, under the leadership of new Administrator Lurita Doan, will make life easier. In June, she said one of her goals was to enable businesses to get on a GSA schedule in 30 days, a process that can take up to a year. GSA's solicitations for contracts often are unclear and confusing in what they ask for, says Courtney Fairchild, president of Global Services Inc., a Washington consultancy. As a result, contractors often must resubmit proposals or respond to additional requests. "Contractors are waiting on that process," says Fairchild.

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