Dec 31 2009

Thrill of the Hunt

Take a cue from government MEOs that are crafting innovative bids and going head-to-head with industry in A-76 competitions.

Photo: Randall Scott
“You’ve got to come up with a
bid that is going to provide the best possible service to the agency. That’s what you’ve
got to do to win,” FDA’s Rick
Rohdenburg says.

When it comes to creating most-efficient organizations, or MEOs, and putting together competitive bids for the A-76 process, no one is as busy as the Food and Drug Administration. The agency has already fielded MEOs to compete in seven A-76 competitions, including three for information technology projects.

Forming an in-house team of career government employees and then going up against vendor teams hardened to the pressures and complexities of head-to-head competition was a little daunting at first, but FDA officials have gotten the hang of it. So far, the agency is undefeated, winning all of its A-76 competitions.

The key to success, says Rick Rohdenburg, director of FDA’s Workforce Programs Staff, is to think and act just like a contractor, staffing your teams with the most creative, knowledgeable people available, emphasizing innovation at every possible turn and leveraging success and lessons learned.

“You’ve got to put your people in that creative mindset, so you can free them to really think outside of the box and come up with a bid that is going to provide the best possible service to the agency,” he says. “That’s what you’ve got to do to win.”

The Office of Management and Budget set forth the rules for private-public competitions in OMB Circular A-76. Around for decades, the circular got an update within the past few years and then became a major initiative under the President’s Management Agenda as a way to determine the most cost-effective and efficient way to perform functions traditionally handled by government employees. Once an A-76 study determines that a work area can be competitively sourced, an agency must put together a team of employees, come up with a proposal and compete against vendors for the work.

Smart Game Plan

Agencies have since created dozens of MEO teams and proposals. Agency personnel and industry observers can now point to a number of best practices to help ease the process for government employees, resulting in more innovative and compliant proposals, and ensuring that federal teams compete as effectively as possible against their industry counterparts.

91% of the time, MEOs win

A-76 competitions

The first lesson? Give the MEO team plenty of time to prepare. Under A-76 rules, an MEO can’t be formed until there’s been a public announcement and it can’t start working on a proposal until an agency releases a performance work statement (PWS), but that doesn’t mean the agency team can’t take some up-front steps that will let it hit the ground running.

Agencies should make the most of that window of opportunity between the announcement of a competition and release of a PWS by first assessing and documenting the organization’s current practices, looking at alternatives, and benchmarking other government and private-sector practices, says Art Smith, president of the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships in Washington. “That way, as soon as the request for proposal comes out, they’ll be able to respond very quickly,” he says.

They can also use the time for training in A-76 processes. In fact, the Energy Department, which has created MEOs that competed for seven contracts and has two more MEO bids under way, makes it a point to always send its agency tender official, the designated leader of the MEO team, for generic but formal training.

“It’s not something easily understood, and it does take a while to get up to speed,” says Adrian Gardner, deputy associate CIO for cybersecurity at Energy and the MEO team leader for its $1 billion-plus IT Support Services competition. “So we spend a month to six weeks just trying to get a feel for all the aspects of the A-76 circular, the drop-dead dates and requirements involved and what generally to expect.”

In-House Consultants

Because setting up an MEO and going through an A-76 competition is so arduous, the same people are rarely involved in more than one. For this reason, Frank Camm, an economist for the Rand research organization of Santa Monica, Calif., suggests that agencies develop a core team of A-76 experts from across the agency that can be available on a consulting basis to new MEO teams.

He recalls that Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., did something similar with great success for an MEO team that panicked at the beginning of an A-76 competition for a facilities management contract. They brought in a group of acquisition experts from another base with skills in program management, contracting, purchasing, acquisition strategy, quality assurance and market research to advise the team.

“Not only do these kinds of experts bring good ideas and lots of knowledge with them, but they are also able to calm people down and get them focused on what they have to do — step by step,” Camm says.

For their part, FDA and Energy have relied on support contractors to provide A-76 expertise, technical assistance and help with writing proposals. Rohdenburg notes that his agency also has consolidated the project management of MEOs into its competitive sourcing staff, a step that lets them act as observers and guides as an MEO team is getting started.

Once a PWS is released, it’s important for agencies to take the time to really understand the project’s requirements and to make sure that everyone on the team also understands them. “You’ve got to communicate, communicate, communicate,” says Denny O’Brien, Energy’s director of competitive sourcing. His organization creates Web sites and uses a document management system to support each A-76 competition and keep all the bidders — both government and private — up to date on the project.

When it comes to responding to the proposal, Rohdenburg cautions MEOs to not let their knowledge of legacy infrastructure and processes cloud what’s actually called for in the PWS. “If it’s not in the contract, then we don’t want to do it,” he says. “And we really emphasize that, because it frees up people’s creativity and allows them to go on and think outside of the box.”

Check It Twice

A best practice that Energy officials have recognized and mandated for all MEO teams is to perform an independent government evaluation of the final proposal. In Energy’s case, they rely on an employee from the Office of Competitive Sourcing to look at it from a technical and cost standpoint and then build a compliance matrix against the PWS to ensure that the MEO team’s bid effectively addresses every requirement.

“In my mind, you need to build that step into your schedule because it really gives you a sanity check as far as whether you’re on target or not,” O’Brien says.

Another approach that many federal MEOs are beginning to recognize as a best practice is teaming with a company on a bid.

29% of competitions draw bids
only from government teams

Both the Federal Aviation Administration and NASA have paired up with vendors on successful A-76 bids. Such private-public teams are allowed as long as the vendor partner only performs functions not currently being done by federal employees. This can work especially well on IT and other technical projects, where the process might lead to bringing in new systems to support an ongoing process or program.

Some or all of the IT work might be new and therefore work that the vendor partner could take on and perhaps provide more cheaply than the government, says Joann Kansier, former director of FAA’s Office of Competitive Sourcing and now a director with Grant Thornton of Chicago. In these partner arrangements, the vendor can provide experience, technical expertise, innovation and capital investment, she says.

A teaming approach works as a best practice only in situations where the acquisition calls for modernization, consolidation and other major changes and improvements. “It’s not going to work if the contract is for park rangers out in Yellowstone National Park,” Kansier says.

The tough part is working out the fine details, she says. “It can be really hard for MEOs because these are generally not made up of acquisition people who understand how to put such a proposal together.”