Mixing Politics and Procurement Creates a Toxic Brew

If elected officials are allowed to influence government contracting decisions it won’t end well for the public.

Imagine this: You are a mid-career government acquisition professional responsible for making an award decision on a contract worth over $400 million. As you evaluate the bids you also can’t help but see and hear the president of the United States openly advocate for one bidder. You’ve already heard, directly or through channels, that one or more U.S. senators are also pressing for this company to get the award. What are you going to do?

This is the heart of the controversy swirling around the recent award of a border wall contract to a North Dakota company for which the president and at least one senator publicly advocated. Was the award politically influenced? Is the company the best positioned to build this portion of the border wall along the southwest border? Since the company was deemed unqualified on more than one previous occasion, one has to wonder: Has the company taken significant steps forward in its capabilities to the point where it is now best suited to the requirements of the contract?

Of course we don’t know the answers to any of those questions. Neither does the president or the senator. And we may only get answers should another bidder protest the award and the questions are litigated. But that’s not actually the biggest concern this incident raises. The biggest concern is that we even have to have this discussion.

This is not the first time recently that the issue of political interference has arisen in federal contracting. Amazon Web Services is currently battling the Defense Department over the award of a major cloud services contract known as JEDI (for Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure) to Microsoft Azure. Prior to the award, the conventional wisdom was that Amazon was uniquely positioned to win the contract. At least one competitor even took legal action against the procurement before bids were submitted, claiming that the competition was rigged for Amazon. Ironically, even as all this was going on, President Trump loudly proclaimed his disdain for Amazon and its founder Jeff Bezos, and made it clear he did not want Amazon to win the contract. Now, Amazon is claiming that the President’s explicit opposition to the company caused it to lose the award, which, of course, would be illegal.

I don’t know the government’s rationale for making the selections it made in the border wall contract or the Pentagon’s cloud contract. Nor do I know which companies are most qualified to perform the work. But here’s the thing: Neither does the president, or any senator, or any other elected official (and few, if any, appointed ones). And the fact that there are credible questions about political interference in the awards should concern everyone committed to procurement integrity. Allegations of cronyism may be as old as public procurement and at one time or another have beset almost every administration. But not at the level we are now seeing.

The federal procurement system is specifically designed to be apolitical. Members of Congress sometimes advocate for constituent companies, but the system is remarkably effective at absorbing those entreaties without inappropriately impacting actual procurement outcomes. Indeed, the very essence of federal acquisition is that awards must demonstrably be in the best interest of taxpayers. And any explicit or implicit effort to violate that core tenet is both illegal and a direct assault on the public interest. Full stop.

Likewise, the acquisition workforce is trained to be studiously apolitical in its work. As imperfect, even troubled, as the system is on many levels, one would be hard pressed to find a significant number of contract decisions that have been politically ordained.

That’s why the JEDI and border wall cases merit close examination and much more attention. In more than 30 years around federal procurement, I have never seen two procurements subject to such explicit political pressure, particularly from the president. We need to know if those pressures did, in fact, influence the procurement decisions and if the awards made were actually the right calls.

Americans deserve to know that such decisions are being made in the public’s best interests; that we can have faith in the integrity of this central function of government. Moreover, it is widely accepted that the acquisition workforce must be empowered to take reasonable risk. As such, they deserve to know they will be fully supported when they ignore political pressure and make thoughtful decisions for the right reasons. 

Regardless of one’s views of this president or this administration, there should be no debate about the importance of ensuring that our procurement system is and remains as apolitical as is humanly possible; that direct or implied pressure from on high has no place if we are to ensure its integrity. Indeed, it would be a tragedy of massive implications if that core ethic were to become yet another norm tossed aside.