Two years into the “Myth-Busters” campaign by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), there is still a long way to go to improve information exchange between government and industry. How quickly can the federal government change its traditional ways of engaging, and what can we learn from popular social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter?
Information Exchange is Encouraged
Agencies and vendors alike need to be reminded of the communication ground rules in acquisitions. Prior to issuance of a solicitation, government officials – including the program manager, users, or contracting officer – may meet with potential offerors to exchange general information and conduct market research related to an acquisition. In fact, the FAR, in Part 15, encourages exchanges of information: “…to improve the understanding of Government requirements and industry capabilities, thereby allowing potential offerors to judge whether or how they can satisfy the Government’s requirements, and enhancing the Government’s ability to obtain quality supplies and services.” FAR 15.201(b)
When the OFPP “Myth-Busters” educational campaign was launched with the first memorandum, it recommended developing Acquisition Communication Platforms. These platforms were intended to “allow the government to more easily engage the vendor community during the pre-solicitation stage, and may be further developed to facilitate communication during other stages of the acquisition.”
Since the release of the memo, however, many of the exchanges have continued to be the traditional Industry Days or Presolicitation Conferences that we have all become accustomed to. They are still pre-planned, pre-scripted and a monologue with little to no interaction with the audience. Industry remains frustrated that attendance can be limited and many times reaches registration capacity within minutes.
Some in government are frustrated also. One Government Program Manager I discussed the issue with voiced frustration with the perception of the need to share all information presented at the Industry Day, with all participants, regardless if they were in attendance or not. He was warned about the need to document any discussions, clarifications, answers to questions that may occur during the course of the event. Therefore he was instructed not to deviate from the presentation, have any request for clarifications documented as questions and then to answer after the industry day to all interested parties. The result: an Industry Day that did not provide the interactive dialogue that either his agency or industry were seeking.
What Can We Learn from Facebook?
Social media platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, employ web- and mobile-based technologies to support real-time dialogue and human communication. Although Facebook has its drawbacks, there is no arguing with the numbers – over one billion active users invest their time in it. The following social media characteristics could benefit a proper Acquisition Communication Platform:
- Accessible– With little or no cost to the user, these exchanges can be opened to a wide audience (industry and government).
- Scalable – Platforms are designed to have infinite number of communities or personal user profiles. Each solicitation or program can easily be set up to have its own dedicated information exchange.
- Ease of use – These platforms can be navigated with minimal training.
- Immediate – Timing can be instantaneous, compared to traditional methods of e-mailing or setting up face to face meetings.
- Permanent– Platforms can provide a permanent and open communication, increasing transparency between Government and Industry. This allows for the true ability to share information with all potential offerors.
A Work in Progress
The General Services Administration (GSA) has developed Industry Communities Websites used to collaborate with its industry partners and gain valuable input and feedback. In these communities, they have shared information such as:
- Virtual Industry Day Presentation
- Other Presentations
- Questions from Industry
- Answers from Government
- Discussions/Blogs Posts
- Draft Performance Work Statements/Draft Statement of Objectives
All of these represent ways to facilitate greater information sharing, but they don’t come without problems. Similar to Facebook users who are uncertain about the privacy of their status updates and photographs, users of the Industry Community websites have also raised concerns. For example, GSA learned that many companies have policies prohibiting employees from contributing to public forums, where information is visible to all and may not be reviewed to ensure that it is consistent with internal company policy and views. In order to overcome this roadblock, GSA has had to resort to a combination of Interactive presentations and traditional one-on-one feedback sessions between Industry and the GSA team.
There are still many times when a phone call or in-person conversation beats a social media message, but the past decade has proven that in private life, business, and government, online communication is increasingly in demand. Mass communication is changing and so too must the acquisition field, where efficient and effective information exchange is essential for proper acquisition planning and market research in procurements of all types and dollar value.
What’s Your Experience?
Have you seen Government Acquisition Exchanges that have adopted social media techniques, digital strategies, or the like in fostering improved Industry/Government dialogue? For more on techniques to better foster communications, please see my presentation “Beyond Myth Busting: Effectively Communicating with Industry.”