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Administrator Robin Carnahan Remarks at Coalition for Government Procurement Fall Training Conference

November 17, 2021

Thank you Roger. It’s great to be with all of you. Thank you for inviting me to kick off your conference.

I appreciate the work done by this coalition...and the challenges that come with navigating such a diverse set of stakeholders, from small businesses to large and across a wide range of industry sectors.

I also appreciate the mission critical work your members support across government, often in partnership with GSA. That’s why it’s so important that we keep improving our programs and reducing barriers that slow progress to delivering on those missions.

Like every successful business, you’re focused on growing your company, finding new opportunities, and creating jobs. So I want to start by simply saying thank you for choosing to do business with the government and by doing so helping agencies deliver for the public and strengthen our nation’s economy.

The work we’ve done together over the past 20 months has given our partnership even deeper meaning during this public health crisis:

We’ve worked together to help agencies across the government quickly adapt to remote work. When the pandemic hit, only 3% of federal workers were remote. We went to 59% which was a massive shift and one that couldn’t have happened without partnering closely with many of you.

We’ve worked together to access much needed personal protective equipment, sanitizer and supplies to keep people safe in federal buildings and special thanks to those of you in healthcare and in manufacturing who pivoted to meet this demand and support our frontline workers.

And we’ve worked together to get our workforces vaccinated so that we can eventually safely return to offices and meet again in person at events like this.

You can be sure that as we think about the future of the federal workplace--how and where we’ll work in the future--we’ll continue to rely on your expertise and solutions.

The past 20 months have been an unprecedented time for all of us whether in the public or private sector and whether employers or employees.  We’ve all faced big challenges, and have had to learn to quickly adapt to working in new ways to both protect and empower our workforce and continue delivering value for our customers.

It’s important that we take time to reflect on how much has changed and to think about which of those changes are worth embracing and which still need more work.

The President has laid out an ambitious agenda to build back better and to create good jobs and a resilient, sustainable future for the American people. Delivering on that agenda will take all of us working together to make it happen.  And it’s why it’s such an exciting time to be at GSA.

I’d like to share a few ideas about what I think we— GSA and all of you—can do to help.

First, government needs to be a better partner to industry; 

Second, industry needs to be a better partner to government; and  

Third, we both need to stay laser focused on delivering value to the public and taxpayers.

Let’s start with how I hope we in government can be a better partner to industry.

I love the Coalition’s mission, which is “to advance common sense in government procurement.” It reminds me of Pres. Truman’s original purpose for establishing GSA over 70 years ago—to make government work better for the public and save money doing it. I couldn’t agree more.

We in government need to become easier to do business with.  At GSA, that means, streamlining processes and improving technology systems to make it easier for agency partners to buy through GSA and easier for industry partners whether small or large to sell through GSA.

I don’t need to tell you that all too often government systems and processes are far too cumbersome, confusing and just plain hard to use- and it’s our job to make it better by putting ourselves in our customer’s shoes - and by that I mean your shoes and our agency partner’s shoes.

I want the GSA to provide what I call “WOW” experiences.

What I mean by that is I want everyone who interacts with GSA….

  • whether in person, on-line, or over the phone
  • whether you’re a buyer at an agency or a business like yours wanting to sell to the government
  • An everyday American or a member of Congress… 

… I want them all to walk away saying “Wow, that was clear and easy.” “Wow, those people are pros.” “Wow, I wish everything in government worked that well.”

For businesses like yours, that means we plan to focus on reducing barriers and friction. I’ll call out a few examples where we’re making progress:

  • Last month our Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization held a virtual event to provide training and matchmaking. More than 800 people attended. They learned about how to respond to RFIs, how to do market research, and more. We heard about barriers they face in breaking into the federal marketplace - and we’re using that feedback to adjust our operations and policies to make sure small businesses can not only get that first contract but also succeed in delivering it.
  • As you may have noticed, we’re also working to improve existing platforms like GSA Advantage to include more details about off-the-shelf products. As a result, federal buyers can now see more descriptions, images, and attachments so that they can more quickly find and buy products you’re offering with less need for back-and-forth on both ends.
  • In addition, I want to call out something that I know Roger has mentioned (and we all want) and that is more streamlined and simple schedules.  We’re already focused on schedule consolidation which allows contractors to do business through a single contract, making it faster for you to add new capabilities and offer complete solutions, and easier and cheaper than managing a lot of separate contracts.

Understand that, none of this work is “done.” We’re committed to continue building on the progress we’ve made but know there is even more we need to do to make it easier to get a contract on schedule, and easier to grow your business through that contract.

So we’ll be looking to you for feedback on how we can continuously improve our processes and systems.  Because I’m certain that the only way GSA can successfully do its job of providing a competitive marketplace of the best available goods and services for our agency partners is to make sure they have access to high quality contractors. That’s how we’ll be able to create the best possible outcomes for the public and value to taxpayers. And that’s how you’ll be able to grow your business.

So please provide your thoughts and suggestions to the GSA team over the next two days - I know you have a great lineup of GSA speakers and panelists who want to hear from you…  I’ll be asking them what topics came up. Know that I’m personally interested in continuous input and feedback so that we can develop stronger relationships and speed progress.

Government also simply needs to become a better, more informed buyer.

In government it occasionally feels like folks just want to outsource the responsibility for fixing a problem but, at the same time, demand that contractors commit to a firm fixed price and timeline even though no one is exactly sure about the real scope or scale of the problem.

Imagine that you have a new basement, but you notice the wall is wet and has a black substance growing. You could ask contractors for fixed-priced bids, but they would have to assume a worst-case scenario...that’s it’s black mold: the wall is collapsing, has cracked enough to admit water, and now black mold is growing. They’d demolish the wall, subcontract for remediation, dig around the foundation, jack up the house, pour a new wall, reframe the interior wall, put up new drywall, and paint. That’s $30,000. That’s how we contract now.

But imagine, instead, that you take a sample of that black substance, pay $50 to test it, and find out it’s just mildew. And imagine that you cut off the drywall and discover it’s just a small leak in a pipe. Now you only need two bids: an hour’s work from a plumber to fix the leak, and a couple of hours from a contractor to patch the drywall and paint. That’s a total of just $300 by being a more curious, capable, informed buyer. That’s how we should be contracting.

Just like that story, I’m sure it’s frustrating to many of you when an agency issues requirements - for software, or professional services, or anything else - that don’t make sense, aren’t well scoped or when the actual needs of a project turn out to be different than the requirements. Government needs to be clearer about our expectations and put out contracts that are more focused on objectives and outcomes and less focused on every detail around how that is delivered.

In general, we need to:  

  • structure our acquisitions more incrementally. 
  • rely on modular procurement strategies, where appropriate 
  • put in place strong quality assurance surveillance plans that are regularly reviewed by government employees, to ensure we’re getting high-quality products and services 
  • review deliverables regularly throughout the project life cycle - my shorthand term for that is demos not memos.

I know how important these principles are in IT procurement, because I’ve worked on these issues for many years. User research really is the holy grail - not focus groups, surveys, or feedback forms. I mean sitting down, one on one, with actual people, to watch how they work and discover their needs, and to validate solutions. Not just at the start of a project, but constantly. When coupled with incremental delivery, this feedback loop should be driving development. That’s what shows real progress and delivers real value.

But adopting this type of iterative approach to delivery doesn’t just apply to tech - that emphasis on feedback and accountability should apply to ALL kinds of products and services that the government buys.

Finally, for the government to be a better partner, we also need to have a better understanding of the emerging challenges you face in this complex global economy. We know that supply chain disruptions and chip shortages are having an impact across many industries and sectors.  Understanding your business challenges and collaborating with you on solutions is just a smart thing to do, and we need to get better at that.

So those are just a few examples of things that could make government a better partner for industry.  I’m sure there are others, so don’t be shy about sharing your ideas with me and the GSA team this week.

So now let’s talk for a minute about how industry can be a better partner to government.

Let’s start with RFIs. That’s a place where you can really help inform your government partners about what’s possible. Take that opportunity to help us know what we should be asking for and how to better scope projects for success.  We need that pre-RFP engagement. No one - including your own employees - wants to work on a contract that is not well defined.  We want your teams to feel pride of ownership and be confident that what they’re delivering is actually solving a problem for an agency and providing value to the public and taxpayers.

Another strength that industry needs to bring to the table is the ability to anticipate market needs and be nimble.

A lot of times in government doing things the same way they’ve always been done seems like the easiest, least risky path. But these days, I’m convinced that failing to evolve to meet this new moment is the most risky thing we could do. Agencies’ needs are changing fast and GSA is committed to respond at the speed of need.

For example, we know from talking to our agency partners that more and more federal employees will be moving to virtual or hybrid work. So GSA plans to develop ideas like an “office in a box,” with the equipment and furnishings ready-to-go to meet their workforce needs.  If you haven’t heard about Workplace2030, you should, because conversations happening there are likely to have a significant impact on the acquisition pipeline in the years ahead.

Bottomline, GSA is evolving to meet this unique moment. And the companies that evolve alongside us are going to have the most success in the federal marketplace.

Agencies across the government are coming to GSA for help with new challenges. And we’re helping them review requirements, and provide them with strategic direction, industry knowledge, and acquisition support. We’re going to do our best to guide them toward innovative, cost effective solutions that meet their emerging needs.

Finally, we need to challenge each other to be better partners - and stay laser focused on delivering value to the public and taxpayers.

Just this week, we saw President Biden sign a historic investment - the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. That means millions of Americans put to work building roads and bridges, replacing lead pipes, and expanding broadband internet to every corner of America. And of course it means more opportunities for businesses like yours.

For GSA specifically, it includes $3.4 billion to modernize more than 30 land ports of entry across the country. Many border stations are decades old and these upgrades will allow us to improve everything from border security, to energy efficiency, to replacing old furniture.  But it’s more than that. They’ll also help us mitigate things like supply chain disruptions.  Our land ports need to be not only secure, but also modern and efficient - and ensure a smooth flow of commerce, trade and tourism.

Of course, the infrastructure package also has major funding increases across the board for our agency partners.  This means they’ll be turning to GSA for help with acquisitions through our schedules, GWACs, and other government-wide contracts, or through assisted acquisition. We’re committed to making it easier for those agencies to do business with GSA, and that means we need to make it easier for sellers like you, too.

Beyond promoting good-paying American jobs, agencies will be looking to invest these infrastructure funds and leverage their buying power in ways that also combat climate change and advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility.

For example, the President has set a goal of increasing participation by small disadvantaged businesses by 50% in the next 5 years.  That means at GSA we’re going to:

  • Do more training for both the acquisition workforce and vendors;
  • make our online tools more user-friendly so small disadvantaged businesses can better evaluate opportunities; and 
  • Establish a stronger engagement strategy for contractors who are new to the federal marketplace.

This work to support DEIA is the right thing to do, and it’s good business.

In closing, my hope is that this is just the beginning of a conversation about how we can work closely together to deliver better outcomes for our agency partners and the public.

Across government, we need your ideas and innovations if we’re to meet this important moment.

So let’s commit ourselves today, to be better, smarter partners… to shared accountability and shared responsibility... because if we do that, we’ll be doing our part to create a brighter future for coming generations of Americans.

Thank you so much, and have a great conference.