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  I’m personally fatigued by the never-ending dialogue on procurement and acquisition reform in the public sector, and specifically in the federal government. One reason I strongly believe we don’t get anywhere is we’ve never had agreement on what we’re trying achieve from the procurement and acquisition system. What goals should we measure ourselves against? So I posed this question to Al Burman, Steve Kelman and Joe Jordan, all three of which are former Administrators of the White House Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Interestingly, as the responses below show, there was one common theme: the need to get “best value” for taxpayers while also responding to a number of other social policy goals. You can listen to the full interview below, as well.

Al Burman:

When I was doing the procurement job, from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, we were very much in a low-price environment. So you had a system where you were looking to get a very low price and be very prescriptive with how to do things. “Best value” and getting a good deal for the government, frankly those were dirty words. It was because people were concerned that if you went down these other paths and gave more discretion to contracting folks you were going to end up with all kinds of corruption and other issues.

I think we’ve gone through a major transformation in the last 25 years or so where we are looking to get a good deal. Unfortunately that good deal, or fortunately depending on your point of view, is a good deal tempered by small business concerns, socioeconomic concerns, and a whole bunch of other goals that come into play as well. But I think those are the challenges you’re trying to address, where the government should be trying to get the best deal.

Steve Kelman:

I suspect you will find the three of us, and almost any OFPP administrator who has ever served, as well as the procurement community in general would almost all agree with what Al is saying. The major goal of the system is to get best value for the government. We’re trying to improve government performance, improve the services government provides its citizens at a reasonable cost.

That’s what the system is about. I think the disputes where the procurement community is often at odds with the people who worry about procurement from outside the procurement community is with people who want to use the procurement system to achieve other goals. Whether it’s socioeconomic—small businesses, minority businesses—but also, in fact increasingly in recent years miscellaneous social goals that are all prefaced by the statement: “If only we could harness the huge buying power of the government to…” stop child labor, or a whole host of other goals.

The sentence I like to promulgate is “Let’s use the huge buying power of the government to get a good deal for the taxpayer.” And that’s a controversial view. But this question tends to pit the procurement community as a whole against the community on the outside.

Joe Jordan: 

I certainly agree with the things that Al and Steve have said. I really understand, because it’s fresh in my mind, many of the challenges and tradeoffs between the social policy goals and trying to get the best products and services at the lowest possible price. Without repeating what they said, the great thing about government acquisition is that it’s arguably the most direct collaboration between the public and private sectors.

So when that’s working well it means we’re maximizing the strengths of each side and achieving agencies’ missions in both efficient and cost-effective ways. When you say what are the outcomes we’re trying to achieve in a perfect world, those are some outcomes and there are ways to measure them.

Aside from social policy objectives, one thing I would point to that aren’t necessarily direct goals or objectives, but are really great positive externalities to the system overall, is that getting system right can lead to all sorts of innovation, job creation, and so many laudable secondary outcomes, that you don’t need to target or optimize the system to achieve, but if you do optimize the system to get best deal for the taxpayer, you will see those other positive outcomes, it really becomes a mutually reinforcing benefit.

Moving Forward

As we can see, Al, Steve and Joe all faced similar challenges, under both Republican and Democrat presidents. The question we pose for our audience is: Can we accomplish social policy goals while trying to get best value for taxpayers?

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