JL IMAGES/Shutterstock.com

Lead Trade Association Calls for More Guidance for Federal Contractors

The Professional Services Council represents over 400 companies that work with all federal agencies.

A lead trade association is calling on the federal government to issue clear and direct guidance to contractors on how to handle the coronavirus. 

The Professional Services Council, which represents over 400 companies who contract with the federal government, said that in the rapidly changing environment, the federal government thus far “has been very very weak and insufficient” in its communication and guidance to the contracting workforce. While the trade association acknowledged the situation is evolving and some agencies have put out guidance, it would like to see more information to help its members cope with the unprecedented circumstances.

“The big issues are the government collectively, and at an agency or the sub-agency level, is continuing to issue new guidance documents for their workforce, for their operations, for their facilities, and those guidance documents are coming from a host of different sources,” said David Berteau, PSC president and CEO. Companies are looking for a framework through which to make decisions, he said. “There’s been no indication that the government either has such a set of common guidance principles or has communicated those either internally or to the companies.” 

While acknowledging the difficulty for agencies grappling with a situation that changes as the outbreak spreads, Berteau told Government Executive that so far he’s only seen some guidance from the Defense and Homeland Security Departments. While he was pleased to see that the guidance Defense issued on Wednesday for personnel travel included contractors, he wished that DHS’s guidance did not tell contractors to handle situations on a case-by-case basis.

In addition to agencies issuing their own guidance for contractors, Berteau said the Office of Management and Budget also should provide direction. OMB did not respond to Government Executive on whether or not it is planning to do so.

Federal contractors must operate in accordance with the terms and conditions set by agency contracting officers, he noted, while general guidance from the Office of Personnel Management is aimed at helping agencies support federal employees. Berteau said he’d like to see agencies provide guidance for contractors “in concert with the overall mission of the agency” for provisions such as telework, payment method and continuity of operations. 

As for what PSC is doing, Berteau said he’s advising member companies to do three things:. First, take care of people. PSC launched an internal website with resources that includes Center for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization guidance. Second, plan for changes, such as travel restrictions. Third, communicate with agency customers. 

Similarly, Kristen Ittig, partner at the law firm Arnold & Porter who specializes in government contracts, told Government Executive that it is very important for contracting officers and contractors to be in near-constant communication and for contractors to document what's happening, so agencies know what they have and haven't been able to do. “While the uncertainty is creating tension, we’ve heard reports that some agencies are making good efforts to ensure they communicate with their contractors and provide guidance,” she said.

"There are certainly parallels" to what happens during a shutdown, "but in this instance I think there's much more emotion attached because this isn't just about a funding issue,” said Ittig. “This is about safety and protecting the contractor workforce and the rest of the population."    

Paul Murphy, a Bloomberg Government contract analyst, told Government Executive that  agencies spent $594 billion on domestic and foreign contracts in 2019, the highest amount on record and a 34% increase from fiscal 2015, according to a Bloomberg Government report.

“The government needs to keep going . . . and we’re good at this,” said Berteau. However, “there has to be a recognition of the important roles that contractors play in keeping that going.”