Commerce Department file photo

Procurement Chief Vows to Simplify Federal Contracting

Rung says key to curbing complexity is collaboration between agencies, industry.

If one word could describe the state of federal contracting, that word would be “complex,” Anne Rung, in her third month as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, told a contractors gathering on Tuesday.

“For vendors, it’s difficult to navigate and find opportunities when the proposals are long and government-centric,  but it’s complex for a number of good reasons,” Rung said at the National Contract Management Association's 33rd symposium in Washington. She cited agencies’ “intricate” needs ranging from disaster forecasting to inventing vaccines.

As part of President Obama’s management agenda, OFPP is focusing on “simplifying the contractor space to emphasize performance” in achieving “world-class customer service and cost savings,” Rung said. “The key to simplicity is greater collaboration and cooperation” within agencies and between the acquisition workforce and industry, she added, noting she learned a team approach growing up in a family with six kids who shared bicycles and bedrooms.

Rung spoke the day after her former agency, the General Services Administration, released new details on its strategic sourcing initiative called the Common Acquisition  Platform, made up of three “hallways” for vendors  in technology, office supplies and administrative support.

As head of the interagency Strategic Sourcing Leadership Council overseeing such reforms governmentwide, Rung plans to strengthen the acquisition workforce and prompt  agency managers to “use less resources and improve innovation as well as lower the stress level” by reorganizing procurement along the lines of the new broad categories.

“It’s a shift to managing entire categories of acquisition across government and bringing common spending under single managers,” as is done in industry and in the British government,” she said. “You could still have agency-specific projects—one size doesn’t fit all and there’s a difference between buying a hammer and buying information technology services,” Rung added. But in the organizational system her office hopes to roll out soon, each category will be led by an individual who understands what drives cost and the emerging markets.

The management of federal procurement—which reaches $450 billion a year—requires a 100,000-member workforce in 3,000 offices around the world, Rung noted. “Some companies have to pay to get an organizational chart, and it’s not uncommon for one company to have thousands of contracts” to keep track of, she said.

One problem is that “many in the stretched acquisition workforce are jacks of all trades who wear multiple hats,” she said. “They’re working with little insight into what other agencies are paying for the same products.”

Fixing acquisition “is not just the responsibility of the contracting officers, but of the chief information officers and chief financial officers as well,” said Rung, whose White House office abuts that of the U.S. controller and the chief information officer. “It really makes a difference when leadership supports the new mission and it’s incredibly impactful when a deputy secretary sends emails actively to boost it.”

OFPP is holding coffee hours and meetings with agency staff, some of whom she dubbed “acquisition ambassadors,” or senior managers who can relay advice and tools to the front lines via blogs and videos.

Information technology procurement, Rung stressed, is the area that requires the most rethinking.  She cited tools such as the government’s new “digital service playbook” and accompanying TechFAR handbook designed to help agencies and vendors streamline procurement.

“I favor strong vendor relationships, based on mutual dependency to cooperate and collaborate for both to succeed, “ Rung said. That would include “early and frequent consultation” on emerging contract awards as explained in her office’s “Mythbuster” memos of recent years, designed to ease fears that dialog risks violating Federal Acquisition Regulation protections against favoritism. Rung said she would be open to an update of Mythbusters.

As specific tools, Rung mentioned this year’s first online dialog for vendors on how to do business with the federal government and a planned new “rate the agency” tool for vendors, for which GSA has volunteered to be the guinea pig. She hopes for more “face to face relationships” to gain more feedback from innovative private-sector companies, some of which are likely small and inexperienced in working with government, she said.  

Asked whether the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System could become a more streamlined feedback tool like the online consumer services Yelp and Trip Advisor, Rung said that even though GSA and the Defense Department are “doing a good job, I’d like to streamline feedback for contractors. And the federal online tools for contract opportunities are still not what they should be.”

Addressing the well-known “brain drain” of experienced officials, Rung told the contractors she would be open to options for better recognizing the work of acquisition officers, including increased pay to compete with the private sector, and would seek to attract more of the Millennial generation to longer-term commitments to federal service perhaps by giving credit for relevant undergraduate courses and exploiting training opportunities at GSA’s Federal Acquisition Institute and the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition University.

CLARIFICATION: Increased pay was one of several options Rung would consider to better recognize acquisition workers.