Touching base with some young contracting officers

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COMMENTARY | Steve Kelman connects with up-and-coming federal procurement officials.

I am 75 years old, and most of my many friends in the federal government are people I met when I served myself. It was a long time ago — 1993 to 1997. What that means is that most of my friends are now retired. I retired on July 1, though I will still be teaching executive education students at the Kennedy School twice a year. 

But I don’t know many early-career contracting professionals. The Rising Star awards, a joint production of Nextgov/FCW and state-and-local publication Route Fifty, which relaunched this year after a multiyear hiatus, included nobody whose primary job was contracting, though some of their responsibilities may have included procurement.

So I wrote two old friends: Mark Junda, who is in charge of the health portfolio in the Office of the Chief Technology Officer at the Department of Veterans Affairs; and Polly Hall, senior advisor to the Chief Procurement Officer at Department of Homeland Security headquarters, to see if they could suggest some people for me to talk with. They kindly provided me with several names of 30-something procurement professionals, one of whom I will spotlight here and others I will write about in my next column.

Troy Loveland, 33 years old, at the VA Technology Acquisition Center came into the federal government through the Pathways program that provides a streamlined way for new college grads to enter federal service. He had been working at a TAC office in New Jersey, but has been remote from his New Jersey home since the beginning of the pandemic.

Loveland’s main job over the past few years has been first to award a big IDIQ digital services contract reserved for veteran-owned small disadvantaged businesses (remember this is the VA) called CEDAR, whose acronym I won’t bore you with, and then to select vendors for task orders under the contract. Four vendors were chosen as winners for the contract. I was very pleased to learn that normally any of the four holders of the underlying contract can bid on task orders, using the streamlined competitive procedures appearing in Part 16 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which involve even less paperwork and source-selection bureaucracy than the commercial item procedures in Part 12 of the FAR. 

When I was in the government back in the 1990s, such procedures were established in legislation as an alternative to the bureaucratic nightmare of traditional source selection procedures under Part 15 of the FAR. Unfortunately, initially many government folks sort of got greedy, feeling streamlined competition was too burdensome, and made many task order awards without any competition at all. 

Congress understandably intervened against this, and what we see in CEDAR has ended up in a good place, with competition that is streamlined but genuine. Loveland uses a whole palette of evaluation techniques, including regular best-value source selection, choosing the highest technically rated vendor with the constraint that the price is fair and reasonable, along with innovative selection techniques such as tech demos (show, don’t tell) and prototype submissions. About half the time they use oral presentations instead of written proposals.

Another thing I like about CEDAR is that it has only four awardees. Over the years, the government began frequently awarding a place on an IDIQ contract to everyone, or almost everyone, who applied. This ran against the idea behind the legislation setting up multiple-award IDIQs, which was that a pre-vetting at the contract level allowed you to choose only great vendors, justifying having a streamlined competition, among great vendors, for task orders.

CEDAR task orders are paid for by the procuring agency, not through some general appropriations pot, and the TAC is funded through the fee agencies pay to use the contract.  Loveland is now working on the competition for a followup contract to CEDAR, which will be called SPRUCE. (Get it, more trees.)

In my next column, I will write about young contracting professionals introduced to me by Polly Hall at DHS.