Industry Needs to Speak Up About Contracting Rules: Larry Allen

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“You can’t manage by regulations, you manage by the judgment of competent people,” said former Lockheed Martin Chairman Norm Augustine, speaking on federal acquisition.

Augustine’s comments are notable for two reasons. First, he’s right. Second, his remarks are from a time when industry was not shy about sharing its views on federal acquisition rules.

Today, Augustine’s voice seems like one crying in a desert. Industry has largely gone missing in action at a time when both Congress and the administration continue to load new burdens on government contractors.

The costs of doing business with the government increase nearly every day. A partial list of new rules and regulations includes:

  • increased domestic content requirements for Buy American Act status,
  • new secure supply chain rules,
  • a confusing mess of potential Cybersecurity Maturity Model Certification (CMMC) requirements,
  • the re-imposition of service worker non-displacement and Project Labor Agreement requirements,
  • an attempt to mandate that all contractor workers be vaccinated against Covid-19.

Each one of these rules adds new costs and burdens to companies doing business with the government. Each one limits competition by driving businesses out of the market and discouraging new entries. More importantly, each rule makes it more difficult for agencies to meet critical missions.

Industry has not raised a significant voice in opposition to these issues, despite the manifest burdens they create.

Associations have commented, but name more than one industry advocate who is readily identifiable in opposing a seemingly never-ending highway of new requirements. Only Professional Services Council’s Dave Berteau is consistently heard on legislative matters.

Industry definitely had a voice in the 1990’s when the Federal Acquisition Streamlining and Clinger-Cohen Acts were implemented. Congressional witness lists were filled with senior contractor officials pressing for fewer regulations and the adoption of commercial item buying preferences.

Contractor voices were also prominent in national and trade press outlets. New groups, like the Acquisition Reform Working Group (ARWG) were formed.

Where’s ARWG today? According to one knowledgeable source, it is currently “dormant.”

The lack of a consistent industry voice or recognizable leadership on critical acquisition matters serves neither industry nor government well. The government inevitably ends up paying for the new rules.

As one federal official said recently, the new Buy American Act rules should really be called “I’ll pay more to buy American.”

Buy America may be acceptable to some, but in a broader sense, the drumbeat of rules means that the government either pays more or gets less. That’s a bad deal, but it’s not nearly the worst that can happen.

New rules, some of which have little to do with acquisition, delay critical weapons systems essential and other national security solutions. They make us less able to quickly respond to threats and less able to work on important offensive initiatives.

Industry leaders know this, yet they allow it to continue. It’s time for that to change. Industry has an obligation to speak out for common sense acquisition rules, rules that will more easily allow it to support critical missions, lower costs for government, and encourage the participation of new market entrants.

One place to start is with the US Department of Agriculture’s recent attempts at reviving “contractor blacklisting” rules. These rules would require contracting officers, untrained in the complexities of labor law, to consider a company’s compliance with such laws regardless of whether they apply to that company’s performance on a government contract.

The USDA’s efforts are likely a stalking horse for similar action by other agencies. These proposals require contracting officers to make judgments on issues for which they have received no training and serve only to increase costs and acquisition lead times.

That’s not management by competent people that serves all parts of the acquisition universe well.

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Author Information

Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners , has over 20 years’ experience in government acquisition. He has provided critical information and advice to most of the top 10 federal contractors doing business with the government today.

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