Relationships key to successful year-end spending

A mix of budget uncertainty and the use-it-or-lose-it nature of federal funding leads to a spending rush at the end of the fiscal year at many agencies. The realities of the contracting process and stipulations under the federal acquisition regulation can make this a daunting time for vendors and contracting shops, alike.

GSA logoDuring a panel discussion at the annual 930Gov end-of-year conference, Casey Kelley, director of the General Services Administration’s Alliant GWAC, said agencies should plan for this months before the fourth quarter arrives. When that’s not possible, it’s important to have strong relationships with internal contracting shops, as well as GWACs and other government buyers, he said.

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Does perception matter? In federal contracting, it does

Perception is a funny thing. Most would agree that it’s based less on reality and more on assumptions – on believing what we’re told, on placing too much weight on one, often isolated situation, circumstance, or moment in time. And yet it persists. And it’s incredibly persuasive.

NCMA World Congress 2015And no, the fact that perception is often shaped by media is not lost on me. As both a producer and consumer of news, I recognize the responsibility placed upon journalists, fair or not, to dictate how an event, an issue, or an entire industry should be regarded.  It’s precisely why, in fact, I was fortunate enough to talk about how perception may or may not influence how federal contracting functions at the National Contract Management Association’s World Congress.

But as we noted during that panel, for the world of federal contracting, the perception comes from many other places beyond media.

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Are tight budgets straining trust between agencies and industry?

Even under the best circumstances, the relationship between agencies and industry can be strained at times.

But are federal budget and staffing shortfalls — particularly among the federal government’s acquisition workforce — fueling a climate of mistrust between the government and its contractors?

It’s not quite that dire yet, contracting experts told Federal News Radio as part of the special series, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees.

But improving the relationship between government and industry remains deserving of some attention — especially in today’s austere budget climate.

“It’s no secret that [in terms of] the numbers of federal employees, there’s a decrease, the retirements are going up, certainly the budget issues of the last couple years don’t improve morale within the federal-employee workspace,” said Michael Fischetti, executive director of the National Contract Management Association, in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose. “And as those folks leave, the ability of the government to hire and retain quality individuals that understand the requirements that they’re levying on the contractor is challenging. So the contractor and the government have to have their best foot forward in this relationship and communicate well to make that happen. And that’s been a concern.”

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VA pushes relationship repair with industry suppliers

When Maurice Stewart arrived at the Veterans Affairs Department a few years ago, he joined a procurement office that was in extreme distress.

VA faced the prospect of running 20 percent over its budget for commodities and IT services in fiscal 2010 due to costly redundancies and other chronic dysfunctions.

The odds that procurement officials and industry leaders could join forces to tackle any of the problems seemed slim given the dwindling interaction — and trust — between the two sides.

The department’s contracting officers were notorious for not returning phone calls. Contracts routinely went out the door late. And vendors had no insight into a contract’s requirements until the official request for proposals hit the street, which limited their ability to propose alternative or more creative solutions.

All that chaos had a direct impact on the agency’s mission. “If we can’t put good requirements out on the street, we can’t serve the veteran,” said Stewart, VA’s associate deputy assistant secretary for logistics policy and supply chain management.

VA officials now believe they have begun to put those problems behind them, thanks to a three-year-old initiative that Stewart leads called the Supplier Relationship Transformation (SRT) program. It is based on the premise that, as Stewart said, “improving dialogue is essential to the health of government procurement.”

VA officials began by surveying vendors and holding industry forums around the country last year. Armed with the feedback they received — much of it brutally honest — they are now developing targeted, multipronged plans to address the biggest problems.

VA is hardly alone in this battle. Procurement offices across government struggle with strained relationships and poor communication with suppliers. Government procurement and industry executives say the problem, at least in part, is an unintended consequence of President Barack Obama’s efforts to tighten ethics rules in contracting.

The message that many procurement officials heard was that they could only stay out of trouble by playing it safe, and that meant avoiding contact with vendors unless absolutely necessary.

Now, officials are trying to reverse that trend through efforts such as VA’s SRT program, the General Services Administration’s supplier relationship management initiative and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s myth-busters campaign.

Getting feedback from industry and internal agency customers is an important first step. Translating that knowledge into policy and managerial guidance that can change attitudes and behaviors is a bit trickier, but it’s a challenge that officials say they must embrace.

No pain, no gain

VA procurement officials realized that if they wanted to improve, they would need to understand where they were falling short, and that meant listening to some harsh criticism.

SRT is VA’s first enterprisewide effort to gather quantitative data and qualitative insight into what’s wrong with the agency’s acquisition processes. The program includes semi-annual supplier perception surveys, quarterly internal customer perception surveys, annual webinars and supplier outreach forums. This year, officials have already held forums in Denver and Atlanta, with plans to do the same in Boston, Seattle, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

The feedback gathered so far has been frank — often painfully so. “Suppliers gave them an earful,” said Doug Black, a director at the Ambit Group, which has worked with VA on the SRT program since the beginning.

Several key problem areas have been identified, including:

  • Inadequate communications. Transparency in the acquisition process needs to be improved and should include ways for vendors to offer feedback on requirements for specific contracts and the overall process.
  • Poor customer service. Contractors would like to see improvements in the level and quality of acquisition support they receive, such as having phone calls returned and contract modifications addressed in a timely manner.
  • Unclear roles. Companies struggle to understand the differing roles and responsibilities of contracting officers, contracting officer’s representatives and program managers.
  • A closed contracting process. Companies would like to provide input on the contract type and definition of requirements early in the process so they can offer VA the best prices and delivery timelines in their proposals.

In general, company leaders told VA officials they didn’t think the department cared about their profitability or adequately shared the risks that come with contracting. Therefore, contractors had no choice but to reflect that risk in the form of higher prices.

On the road to recovery

The grievances were no surprise to Jaime Gracia, president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting, an acquisition and program management consulting firm. For example, he said that many companies in the service-disabled veteran-owned small-business community, of which his firm is a part, are frustrated with VA’s certification process. VA officials say it should take three months for the agency to certify a company as eligible to compete for special contracts set aside for that community.

“I’ve not met anyone who got through it in three months,” Gracia said. “It may happen, but I’ve never heard of it.”

He said some companies are choosing to avoid that bureaucratic process and are looking elsewhere for business. He sees the SRT program as a positive sign.

“The VA is far from stellar, but they recognize it and are going in the right direction,” he said.

The feedback has been hard for some VA managers to take. “Initially, some folks were reluctant to read what was reported on the surveys,” Stewart said.

But only by identifying and understanding the problems can officials begin to craft plans to solve them. Fortunately, those efforts are already under way.

For example, last year the VA acquisition office formed an industry advisory group of 24 companies of varying sizes. The group meets quarterly to share best practices and provide targeted suggestions to help VA improve relationships with vendors.

VA also established a governance council of acquisition leaders, which is led by the chief acquisition officer and the senior procurement executive and includes policy experts and the small-business procurement director. The council’s purpose is to develop specific action plans for improvement.

That group came up with the idea of having VA’s Technology Acquisition Center conduct advanced planning briefings for industry. Contracting officers and program managers can now bring companies in to talk about upcoming procurements so they have an opportunity to provide feedback and suggestions early in the process.

Such programs are still fairly new, but as more suppliers are getting involved and seeing that VA officials are committed to improvement, negative attitudes are beginning to change, Stewart said.

Based on the responses to the supplier perception surveys, VA is making measurable progress. Vendors are asked to use a five-point scale to rate VA’s performance in specific areas. When the first survey was conducted in October 2010, the agency scored 3.5 or higher in only two areas. In the second and third semi-annual follow-up surveys, companies gave VA a rating of 3.5 or higher in four areas.

In addition, 17 areas received ratings below 3.0 in the first survey. In the second survey, 12 areas scored below 3.0, and VA only had five areas rated below 3.0 in the third survey.

Turning the tide

The need to strengthen relationships with industry is pervasive throughout government. An independent survey of contractors released in February reported a worsening relationship between government contracting officers and industry representatives.

Ten percent of respondents in Grant Thornton’s 17th annual Government Contractor Industry Survey said the relationship with contracting officers was “fair or poor,” double the percentage who gave that rating in the previous year’s survey. Moreover, only 22 percent of the more than 100 companies surveyed said they believe the government resolves contract issues efficiently, a drop from 26 percent in the previous year.

The Obama administration has been trying to improve relationships with industry suppliers. For example, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy released its myth-busters memo in February 2011 to encourage agency officials to increase their communication with industry. The memo emphasized that it is not against the rules to discuss upcoming contracts and procurements before bid proposals are formally solicited. In fact, those discussions are necessary.

“If OFPP had to issue that memo, it indicates there’s a serious problem,” said Robert Burton, former deputy administrator at OFPP and now a partner at Venable law firm.

Only after Burton left government for the private sector did he realize how closed off most of the government acquisition workforce is from industry, he said. Stewart said he had a similar reaction during his time in the private sector.

The General Services Administration, which handles $50 billion in business volume annually, is also working on ways to improve relationships and communication with vendors, said Steve Kempf, commissioner of GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS).

GSA officials are planning to launch a supplier relationship management initiative, and like their counterparts at VA, they are starting with an assessment of the current state of relationships.

The agency recently surveyed 50,000 contractors to see how they perceived FAS as a business partner. Officials planned to share the results among GSA procurement managers in April. Kemp said the results will contribute to the development of specific action plans.

In addition, GSA has been making an effort to incorporate companies’ input earlier in the contract development process. For example, GSA’s Interact website hosts a community for industry members who are interested in providing input as GSA develops a new professional services contract called One Acquisition Solution for Integrated Services (formerly Integrations).

Keeping the momentum going

The key to all those efforts is follow-through and continuing engagement, Stewart and other executives say.

As part of VA’s SRT program, Stewart hosts an end-of-year webinar for vendors, a sort of State of the Union address for VA’s acquisition community.

At the third such update, held last month, all of VA’s senior acquisition leaders shared the improvements their offices have made in the past year based on vendors’ feedback.

“What we try to do is show them we’ve made changes and show them improvements,” Stewart said. “If you don’t keep them engaged, they’re going to feel, ‘Why should I invest my time and resources?’ Without their investment, you have nothing.”

Tips for better conversations

Agencies can build a more competitive pool of bidders by reaching out to the vendor community early in the procurement process and asking company leaders to share their ideas and expertise. But participants on both sides fear running afoul of acquisition regulations and jeopardizing contracts, which has kept many of them from pursuing greater engagement.

Last year, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy launched a campaign to dispel common misconceptions about such interactions and encourage responsible and constructive exchanges.

Among other guidance, the myth-busters campaign advises government procurement employees to:

  • Communicate with vendors early, frequently and constructively.
  • Talk to various categories of small businesses.
  • Talk to vendors you have not worked with in the past.
  • Protect private information, including vendors’ confidential information and details on the agency’s source-selection process.

[Source: Office of Federal Procurement Policy]

Soliciting honest feedback

Officials might have to suffer some bruising criticism if they want to improve their procurement performance and relationships with industry.

To see what their contractors think of the job they are doing, Veterans Affairs Department officials conduct semi-annual surveys that ask contractors to assess the agency’s performance.

Topics include:

  • The company’s commitment to VA for a long-term business relationship.
  • VA’s effectiveness in sharing risk and reducing the company’s need to build risk into its pricing.
  • The extent to which VA makes it easy for companies to succeed and effectively provide goods and services.
  • The overall quality of the working relationship between VA and the company.

by Matthew Weigelt – Federal Computer Week – Apr. 16, 2012 at

Are auditors to blame for poor contractor-customer relationships?

The relationship between government contractors and federal acquisition officials has been on the decline for several years now, according to a new Grant Thornton survey, but companies say their relationships with contracting officers have deteriorated more in the last year than in the past.

Grant Thornton surveyed more than 100 government contractors in 2011 for its 17th annual Grant Thornton Government Contractor Industry Survey, which was released Feb. 20. Of those contractors, 78 percent of them said the government is inefficient. But half of that 78 percent put the primary blame on the contracting officers, while 28 percent blame the auditors.

In an analysis of the responses, Grant Thornton said it’s a shift in blame from prior surveys in which most respondents blamed the Defense Contract Audit Agency for inefficiencies in resolving contract issues.

“It appears that respondents have come to expect delays from the DCAA, and are becoming more and more frustrated by the unwillingness of contracting officers to assert the decision-making authority granted to them in the procurement regulations,” according to the survey.

Grant Thornton said in practice, the auditors have been granted greater influence on contracting officers in recent years. They now exert more pressure on the officers regarding the resolution of a contracting issue involving contract costs or a contractor’s business systems. However, auditors are only advisors to the contracting officers.

“Predictably, the impact of this structural infighting has been to slow down the resolution of routine issues, with the government often paying a far higher cost than would have been paid had the auditor been limited to an advisory role as defined in the regulations,” Grant Thornton said.

Despite the shifts, auditors and contractors have had a not-so-good relationship, although the better relationship with contracting officers is hurting too.

The relationship with auditors was rated as “fair or poor” by 19 percent of the more than 100 surveyed companies, compared with 11 percent in the 16th annual survey.

The relationship with contracting officers was rated as “fair or poor” by 10 percent of the participants in the 17th annual survey, compared with 5 percent in the prior survey.

About the Author: Matthew Weigelt is a senior writer covering acquisition and procurement for Federal Computer Week.  This article was published on Feb. 28, 2012 at

Surviving and thriving as a small government contractor

During a recent Fairfax County (Virginia) Chamber of Commerce event small, woman-owned and veteran-owned businesses converged to learn about the federal government contracting outlook for 2012 and hear from those who have been in small business shoes.

Freedom Bank’s Vice President and Relationship Manager of Government Contracting Lending, Michael Marsden, led a panel discussion that included an analyst from Bloomberg Government; Phil Panzarella, the president and CEO of CPS Professionals Services, a veteran-owned contractor; and Dawn Halfaker, the CEO of Halfaker & Associates, a woman-owned, 8a, service-disabled veteran-owned contractor.

The panelists’ companies represent a wide array of socioeconomic statuses that act as differentiators and could allow them to fulfill the specific teaming needs of other contactors. However, both Panzarella and Halfaker stated that leading with socioeconomic statuses is not a key to surviving or thriving as a government contractor.

So if your company’s unique qualities won’t make you stand out, what is the best way to get started and win your first government contract?

Relationships and Networking

Data from Paul Murphy, Bloomberg Government Senior Data Analyst, and advice from Panzarella and Halfaker had a common theme: would-be
contractors should network and create valuable relationships.

Murphy’s data showed that while some socioeconomic goals have not been met by certain agencies, they have been increasing. By focusing on the agencies that are striving to meet their small business contract goals and creating relationships with contacts within them, a company will be making a better investment of its time than trying to focus on every agency at once.

The Departments of Veteran Affairs, Homeland Security, Energy and General Services Administration are among the agencies increasing their spending with small businesses. However, not all agencies are making these increases. The Small Business Administration is one such agency: Murphy stated that the SBA will be making cuts, which means less monitoring and enforcement of rules.

Furthermore, heavy cuts will affect the SBA business development centers. This will affect relationships in a couple of ways: Small businesses will have to rely more on each other, and valuable relationships may be better invested in other potential teaming and subcontracting partners.

“We had a lot of success partnering with other large companies. It is easier to connect with their points of contacts compared to agency contacts. Leverage
those relationships. You need to focus on agencies, but limit it,” said Halfaker.

She went on to say that at times, it can be difficult to identify the right point of contact in both agencies and large companies. Relationships with existing connections can help point you in the right direction.

When it comes to partnering and opening a line of communication to other contractors, there must be a give/take relationship, and you must work at it.  Unless you continue to communicate with agencies and partners, your relationship could become strained. “Out of sight, and out of mind,” said Panzarella.

Panzarella also stated that prior to building a partnership, CPS Professionals Services requires that small businesses already have a scope and plan in place.

Planning and Preparing for Growth

Though Halfaker & Associates and CPS Professionals Services may have started in the proverbial basement and were initially funded by equity loans, they knew that as they began to win more contracts, growth and complications would be inevitable. Contractors must plan not only how to grow by adding new
employees and infrastructure, but what to do in case of delays in federal payments. Panzarella and Halfaker suggested that spending time wisely (not wasting it on events that won’t result in new connections or beneficial information) and creating a focused plan led to their companies’ growth.

“Hard work. We put in a lot of hours because I believe in where we are going as an organization. We don’t have to go in and win multi-million-dollar awards, we can take the million-dollar contracts,” said Panzarella. His company remained very focused on what it wanted, picked a few agencies, and pursued them.

Tips from Dawn Halfaker

  • Know what drives revenue – Focus on the events that will provided the best return.
  • Leverage social media – Appear as big as you can. Brand yourself internally and externally more effectively.
  • Know your next hire – Make sure you can afford and pay for the new employee.

Related Link

Five Keys to Small Business Government Contracting in 2012

About the Author: Elliot Volkman holds a Masters in digital communications and is the Community Manager of GovWin from Deltek.  Published Dec. 19, 2011 at