Influential business thinker, Peter Drucker, famously said, “What gets measured, gets managed.” There is a certain appeal to this concept – that the only thing standing between us and greatness is the right data set. Current Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) Administrator, Joe Jordan, and GSA’s Federal Acquisition Service (FAS) Administrator, Tom Sharpe, are both outspoken proponents of the idea that metrics will save the world (or at least government procurement). As such, they have applied data measures extensively throughout their organizations, including in the GSA Schedules Program.
Ironically, those of us who have worked in the Schedules arena for some time would be hard-pressed to think of an era when the program was more dysfunctional. Why is it then, that when so much attention is being paid to performance measures, less and less seems to actually be getting completed? Let’s examine Drucker’s rule again. I believe it makes a fundamental assumption that the people who are being measured have the power to control the outcomes on which they are evaluated. If you assign responsibility without authority though, you need to prepare to deal with the repercussions of desperation.
A primary example of this started occurring after GSA transitioned to an electronic contracting environment several years ago. The eOffer and eMod Systems provide GSA with the capability to capture a number of performance metrics. However, the most basic is turn time – the number of days (or months) that it takes a Contracting Officer to process an award or a contract modification. Not surprisingly, someone decided that faster was better, so the deluge of rejections began.
Now, this trend has become so prevalent that conservative estimates put the rejection rate for new offers at over 50%. There are other factors at work here, especially with the Demand Based Model, because GSA contracting professionals are evaluated in part on how quickly they can complete an offer or a modification. There is clearly an incentive for them to reject a submission with issues that likely would have been resolved through clarifications in the past.
When taken to the extreme, this desire to meet performance metrics can lead to some undesirable behavior and outcomes..For example, there is a GSA Contracting Officer whose email signature line reads, “Please do not submit eMods on Fridays, the eMod will not get reviewed and/or approved!” When asked why modifications submitted on Friday would be rejected, the Contracting Officer stated that because the eMod system counted turn time on calendar and not working days, Friday submissions would automatically take at least four days to complete and this was not acceptable.
While I may sometimes feel that a rejection is arbitrary or worse, looking at the situation from GSA’s perspective makes the situation more understandable (although no less frustrating). GSA has been receiving a historic volume of offers and modifications. At the same time, it is facing several high-profile scandals, hiring freezes, the elimination of intern programs, retirements of experienced personnel, and increasing scrutiny on pricing negotiations. The situation will likely only worsen as many long-standing contractors are now approaching the 20-year mark on their Schedule contracts and will have to submit new offers.
At the recent Coalition for Government Procurement Fall Conference, the Director of the Fort Worth Acquisition Center estimated that they had nearly 400 open offers waiting to be processed. This highlights the fact that, in many cases, the sheer volume of work makes it impossible for acquisition professionals to meet procurement metrics without “gaming” the system through rejections. Furthermore, the requirement to turn offers and modifications over quickly incents the Contracting Officers to avoid more complicated and time-consuming contract actions, such as additions and price increases, which are usually the modifications the contractor cares about most.
Going back to Drucker, it is important that I acknowledge that GSA’s Contracting Officers don’t dictate policy. They are working within a system they do not control, and yet are held accountable for its outcomes. Is it any wonder that so many offers and modifications are being rejected? The catch-22 is that as long as the Contracting Officers continue to operate in desperation mode, FAS will never see how long it really takes to properly award and administer a GSA Schedule contract. If you want to truly manage performance, not just create the appearance of performance, you must be willing to accept the metrics as they really are, understand what they mean, and then manage the changes required to make your results what you want them to be. Let’s hope that happens at GSA sooner than later.