A bittersweet birthday party for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy

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Steve Kelman worries that the Biden administration is steering federal buyers away from best-value goals.

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy recently had a party in the Eisenhower Old Executive Office Building next to the White House to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its establishment in 1974. 

I served as administrator of the office during the Clinton administration between 1993 and 1997, during which time a number of changes were introduced to make the procurement system more oriented towards its government customers (rather than seeing itself mainly as an oversight function keeping program managers in check) and towards agency missions. These were changes that mostly, though not all, have stuck to this day.

I was one of the former administrators who was invited to and present at this event. It was a very warm and nostalgic feeling to see, often for the first time in many years, staff I worked with then who sometimes were still there, or at least still alive and in attendance, along with newer OFPP employees such as long-time career Deputy Administrator Lesley Field, people from other agencies, congressional staff and lobbyists from the time.

However, the experience was also somewhat bittersweet because the celebratory message sent by President Joe Biden for the event said this administration’s major two accomplishments in the procurement area are expanding the use of Buy America in federal procurement and in expanding contracting with small disadvantaged businesses. These may be fine objectives, but neither involves the underlying purpose of the procurement system, which should be to obtain best value for the government -- good prices and good quality for products and services agencies buy on behalf of taxpayers and agency missions. 

Whatever else Buy America requirements do, they raise the cost of what agencies buy and sometimes negatively affect the quality of what is available. The same is true of requirements to buy from small disadvantaged businesses. Most career contracting professionals in government would like the system to focus on obtaining best value.

When I was in the government, I did the best I could – often successfully, sometimes not – to keep the system focused on achieving best value for agencies and taxpayers. I fought against two different dysfunctions in the procurement system. One was buying only low bid rather than being willing sometimes to pay a higher price for better quality. The other was buying based on what were in those days often called “socio-economic” considerations such as Buy America or small business set-aside requirements. Both of these required standing up against diverse lobbies for non-best value buying approaches. This was the hardest, and sometimes most-unpleasant part of my job, which made me friends but also enemies.

The experience at the OFPP shindig was bittersweet because of Biden’s message. I worry that hard-fought battles to create a procurement system oriented toward best-value buying might be reversed. This is particularly painful for me personally since I regard myself as a Joe Biden fan. And as a Democrat I believe in a positive role for government. But that gives people such as me an obligation to work for government that is effective.

I am now 76 and have been out of government for 40 years. I would like to see the system return to its role as buying stuff well. I hope that a younger generation of civil servants and believers in good government will take up the cudgel for this cause.