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Administrator Pledges to Tackle Federal Procurement Issues

Remarks by
Lurita A. Doan
Administrator
U.S. General Services Administration
Coalition for Government Procurement Dinner
Anaheim, California
Wednesday, April 23

What?

(Lurita has arrows sticking out of her head, shoulders, arms and legs.)

Let me just say: Making innovative changes to tired programs is not easy … you have to expect taking some shots. 

Just look at me!  

If nothing else, you should know that your GSA Administrator has been in the fight, has been pushing reforms, encouraging innovation, and has ventured out into hostile territory.

Take a look!

(Lurita removes arrow number one.)

This one is from someone named status quo … status quo says, “GSA should never try to improve government programs.  How dare we question?  How dare we even try?  Keep everything the same, don’t rock the boat … this is how it’s always been done.”

But me, I’m a contrarian: I have a different idea.

(Lurita removes arrow two.)

This is from the entrenched.   entrenched says, “it’s a fine idea, but we just need to move a bit more slowly; let’s not be too hasty.  Perhaps we need to commission a study before we continue?” 

But me, I’m a contrarian: I believe the opposite. I know that nothing happens until you commit to it, and I know that fiercely committed people can achieve great things.

(Lurita removes arrow three.) 

This one is from the press who say:  “I’ve been covering this issue for some time. I’m the only one who really understands the issue.  You need to consult me, listen to my recommendations.” 

But me, I'm a contrarian: I say, hmmmmm sounds great, count me out!

(Lurita removes arrow number five.)

 This is from some of the folks on the Hill:  why is it that they always aim so low? 

This is from folks called, “there’s only 9 months left.”  These folks are the ones who say:  “What do they think they can do; there’s so little time left. Too late now to start anything new; too late now to finish previously begun initiatives.”

But me, I say….ouch!

The rest of the arrows……well does it really matter? The point is this, my friends: GSA, over the past 22 months, has taken some bold steps forward, taken some arrows, and yet here we are -- standing tall … unbowed… ready for more.  

More importantly, take a look at what we have achieved, for you now see a more robust GSA leading the government in fiscal accountability, leading the government in innovation and leadership in new, emerging areas, like telework.  This more muscular, capable, and assertive GSA is in the zone. The performance zone.

  • We have retooled our emergency management capabilities and are now vastly better prepared for any contingency.  Our state and local programs are efforts that have really taken off.
  • Take a look at our Ports of Entry Program, and you will see a building boom underway with four new ports under construction in Jackman, Maine, Calais, Maine, San Ysidro, CA, and Donna, Texas.  These are the first new port of entry construction projects in almost 20 years.
  • The ranks of small businesses listing products on the GSA Schedule is growing as we have reduced the time it takes to get a simple schedule to 30 days.

And so…if we may have caught a few arrows along the way from hostiles, believe me, the progress was worth it. 

And that brings me to the topic of the day…and the core of my message to you this evening, for GSA is now involved in one of the most important and difficult battles we have yet faced.  

It is time to take a fresh look at some of GSA’s procurement issues and programs and have the honestly, integrity, and courage to identify things that can be improved and then take action to make it better. Some of our policies have not been reviewed in over 20 years and it is long past time to take a fresh look.  We are going to find ways to improve, and bring more clarification and transparency to the sometimes too confusing array of procurement guidelines.  I am enormously hopeful that GSA’s new Blue Ribbon Commission will bring new ideas, fresh thinking, and an honest assessment of what GSA could do to improve our MAS Schedules.

I am also particularly interested in improving the work environment for our contracting and procurement officials to give them more flexibility to be creative, and more chances to be innovative in finding ways to save taxpayer money. 

Federal procurement professionals and government contractors as well, have systemic strengths and provide a vast deep pool of resources for the nation to draw upon.  Cutting edge technologies and innovative solutions are found all through the government.  Contractors working directly with federal procurement officers have drawn upon that pool and built the technology to put a man on the moon, developed life-saving new drugs, created global telecommunications and a thousand other simply incredible achievements.  And yet, the view too often from Washington and Congress is that federal contractors are all universally cheats, thieves, and incompetents interested in only ripping off the taxpayer.  federal contracting professionals are similarly unfairly stereotyped as being too lazy, stupid and possibly corrupt. 

From my perspective, there is a great danger when these false characterizations become the only message from congress or from the press.  My fear is that congress seems to continually test the limits of the resilience and durability of our procurement resources — our contracting officers --- as if the reservoir were inexhaustible. And it’s not!

Our country’s federal procurement system is wisely based upon the concept of open and fair competition.  We depend upon great companies, large and small, making the most innovative products and creative solutions and offering them to the government at the best value.  Once unheard of, recently several good companies with great products have taken the unusual step of voluntarily cancelling their contracts, citing excessive and unfair and expensive efforts to becoming compliant with auditor demands.  When good companies are no longer willing to offer their goods and services on the GSA schedule, competition is eroded, choices are restricted, and the taxpayers are, ultimately, left with a larger bill.  Clearly a balance between legitimate oversight and accountability to taxpayers must be found. 

I am proud to report that GSA’s procurements are sound, well managed and our acquisition force has never been more innovative or better motivated. 

But we do face challenges, and there are cracks in the foundation that need to be addressed.  So I will focus attention on these issues, and I am sure arrow makers everywhere are going to rejoice! for, I have little doubt that GSA will be tackling some of the most closely held taboos and popular mythology about government contracting and stating the truth.  For example:

  • The vast majority of government contractors are performing well and providing great products and outstanding services to the federal government.  It might be popular to dump on businesses, call them names, make them scapegoats, but it is unfair and false.  I am going to be more assertive and less willing to allow disparaging and misleading characterizations to go unchallenged.
  • Federal procurement officers perform the most difficult job in government and are an important strategic national resource. Unfortunately, too many are leaving government service prematurely and most federal agencies have now developed well-intentioned recruitment efforts to expand the cadre of procurement officials.  I can sympathize with those plans.  But, it seems to me that those recruitment efforts are going to fail, and I have taken a different, contrarian approach to solving the same problem.  It seems to me that just concentrating efforts at hiring more procurement professionals without addressing the fundamental reasons why so many are leaving government service early is akin to trying to fill up a bucket with water that has several large holes in the bottom.  The procurement professional bucket is leaking faster than it can be filled.  so GSA will do something much different; we are going to concentrate on improving the working environment of our existing procurement officers and do a much better job of retaining our most experienced and capable people.  Procurement officers want more responsibility, flexibility and freedom to do what they do best ... making good procurement decisions. I want to give them this flexibility, to encourage more innovative efforts and not allow simple procedural mistakes to become career-enders.
  • And, by all means, let’s talk too about the proper role of oversight and accountability.  There are members of congress and the media who believe all procurement challenges can be solved by screaming for oversight.  They are like parrots, with but a single phrase.  “Polly want some … oversight oversight oversight.”  Now I do believe that there is a need for extensive and effective oversight, accountability and transparency in all we do. But, again, I will take the contrarian view to popular mythology: just yelling for more oversight is not going to solve any problem or result in any savings to taxpayers.  Oversight has to be effective, targeted, and responsibly discharged. Just adding another platoon of auditors and investigators to approve every federal procurement before it can be issued will not solve any of the problems and will actually compound them. 

I will also add that the oversight community needs to step up and be accountable for its own operations and can no longer be permitted to bend rules, guidelines and statutory responsibilities when it is inconvenient.  The rules need to apply equally to everyone, or we run the risk of allowing for a divisive double standard to exist.  Furthermore, our oversight and regulators need to find a better balance and be more willing to find creative solutions to existing problems.   

And so, for those of you anxious to shoot some arrows, I can guarantee you will have a very visible target over the next few months as GSA moves forward.  But I would hope that most of you will become kindred spirits and help us to create a better procurement environment.  I hope you will speak up and refuse to allow contractors and procurement officials to become political scapegoats.  And above all else, I hope you will have the courage to help us bring fresh and innovative new ideas to existing programs and business lines within GSA. 

With or without you, we are going to do this.  But it sure would go a lot faster and it would be a lot more fun if this community would begin to assert itself and be more willing to speak out when it sees things that are so clearly wrong or that could be improved.

We have a great opportunity to bring some transformational changes and long overdue improvements to GSA and fundamentally improve our procurement system.  Certainly, we are going to catch a few more arrows along the way, but just think about what we can achieve if we only have the courage to try….