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Vendor Communication Plan - August 26, 2011

Executive Summary

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS or the Department) recognizes that conducting market research is an important component of acquisition planning, and frequent and effective communication with industry is often one of the best ways to obtain that information. Furthermore, the Department is aware that some members of the greater acquisition community may mistakenly believe that the applicable rules covering government-industry communication limit industry engagement more than they actually do. Those misunderstandings, especially when compounded by fears of protest, may unduly limit Government-industry communication.

Due in part to the concerns expressed above, the Department is committed to promoting government-industry communications to the maximum extent allowable and when in the best interests of HHS. In that vein, the Department has developed this Plan to: (a) dispel common misconceptions that acquisition personnel may have regarding government-industry communications; (b) build upon our current communication policies and guidance; (c) bridge communications gaps between the government and industry; (d) enhance our understanding of current industry capabilities and conditions, and (e) improve the quality and effectiveness of our procurements.

1. Introduction

1.1. Purpose

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recognizes that communication between government and industry can be improved.  Some Department acquisition professionals may have adopted common misconceptions about the extent to which they may communicate with industry when conducting market research and throughout the acquisition lifecycle. Those misconceptions may limit vendor engagement and create knowledge gaps regarding industry standards, capabilities, pricing, and available technologies. In turn, this may lead to less- than-optimal procurement outcomes. By adopting and implementing this Plan, HHS intends to improve the quality and effectiveness of its procurements.

1.2. Scope

This Plan provides a roadmap for HHS acquisition personnel regarding methods and means of government-industry communication to:

  1. Dispel common misconceptions that acquisition personnel may have regarding government-industry communications;
  2. Build upon our current communication policies and guidance;
  3. Bridge communications gaps between the government and industry;
  4. Enhance our understanding of current industry capabilities and conditions; and
  5. Improve the quality and effectiveness of our procurements.

1.3. Document Organization

The document is organized in the following manner:

  1. Section 2 provides the discussion portion of the document.
  2. Section 3 identifies the HHS individuals and their roles and responsibilities in support of this Plan.
  3. Section 4 contains information on training and awareness efforts for employees and contractors.
  4. Section 5 provides links to regulatory authorities.
  5. Section 6 provides plans to follow-up with employees and industry representatives.

2. Discussion

2.1. Relationship with Industry

The Department is committed to fostering open communication with industry whenever necessary, practicable, and appropriate. To that end, all HHS acquisition personnel are responsible for: (a) reading, understanding, and the implementing Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s memorandum, entitled “Myth-Busting”: Addressing Misconceptions to Improve Communication with Industry during the Acquisition Process,dated February 2, 2011, and (b) taking necessary steps to counteract the following10 misconceptions about government-industry communications:

  1. We can't meet one-on-one with a potential offeror." Fact -- Government officials can generally meet one-on-one with potential offerors as long as no vendor receives preferential treatment.
  2. “Communication with contractors is like communication with registered lobbyists - it must be disclosed. This additional disclosure burden means we should avoid these meetings." Fact -- Most contractors do not fall into the category of requiring disclosure. Even when they do, it is a minimal burden that should not prevent useful meetings from taking place.
  3. A protest is something to be avoided at all costs - even if it means the government limits conversation with industry." Fact -- Restricting communication won't prevent a protest, and limiting communication might actually increase the chance of a protest – in addition to depriving the government of potentially useful information.
  4. Conducting discussions/negotiations after receipt of proposals will add too much time to the schedule." Fact – Whether discussions should be conducted is a key decision for contracting officers to make. Avoiding discussions solely out of schedule concerns may be counterproductive, and may cause delays or other problems during performance.
  5.  "If the government meets with vendors that may cause them to submit an unsolicited proposal and that delay the procurement process." Fact -- Submission of an unsolicited proposal should not affect the schedule. The unsolicited proposal process is separate from the process for a known agency requirement that can be acquired using competitive methods.
  6. When government awards a task or delivery order using the Federal Supply Schedules, debriefing isn't required so it shouldn't be done." Fact -- Providing feedback is important, both for offerors and the government, so agencies should provide feedback whenever possible.
  7. Industry days and similar events attended by multiple vendors are of low value to industry and the government because industry won't provide useful information in front of competitors and the government doesn't release information." Fact -- Well-organized industry days, as well as pre-solicitation and pre-proposal conferences are valuable opportunities for the government and for potential vendors – both prime contractors and subcontractors, many of whom are small business.
  8. The program manager already talked to industry to develop the technical requirements, so the contracting officer doesn't need to do anything else before issuing the Request for Proposal (RFP)." Fact -- Technical requirements are only part of the acquisition; getting feedback on terms and conditions, pricing structure, performance metrics, evaluation criteria, and contract administration will improve the award and implementation process.
  9. Giving industry only a few days to respond to an RFP is okay since the government has been talking to industry about the procurement for over a year." Fact -- Providing only short response times may result in the government receiving fewer proposals and the ones received may not be as well-developed, which can lead to a flawed contract. This approach also signals that the government isn't really interested in competition.
  10. Getting broad participation by many different vendors is too difficult; we're better off dealing with established companies we know." Fact --  The government loses when we limit ourselves to the companies we already work with. Instead we need to look for opportunities to increase competition and ensure that all vendors, including small businesses, get fair consideration.

To strengthen HHS-industry communications, the Department supports the following best practices:

  1. Communicate early, frequently, and constructively with industry.
  2. Develop a stronger partnership between Office, Small Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) and the acquisition community to facilitate effective communications with small businesses and subgroups thereof.
  3. Expand competition to include vendors that the agency has not worked with in the past.
  4. Identify which procurements in the agency’s published procurement forecast (e.g., for mission-critical, complex, state-of-the-art requirements) may require enhanced pre-solicitation communication strategies.
  5. Protect non-public information, which includes vendors’ confidential information and the agency’s source selection information.

2.2. Reducing Barriers and Promoting Engagements

The following is a brief description of HHS’ efforts to confront barriers in the future and foster better communications between government-and industry entities:

  1. Conduct industry days, small business conferences, and outreach sessions (e.g., Veteran Owned, Service Disabled Veteran Owned, Historically Underutilized Business Zone, 8(a) Small Business (VH8 day)), as practicable.
  2. Conduct pre-solicitation and pre-proposal conferences to promote a common understanding of the procurement requirements, the solicitation terms and conditions, and the evaluation criteria, as appropriate.
  3. Educate the broader acquisition community (e.g., program management and information technology/security) to openly communicate with industry, especially for large, complex requirements -- seeking Contracting Officer direction, as needed.
  4. Release draft Request for Proposals (RFPs), including sections L and M, to receive industry input, as appropriate.
  5. Increase access to industry through collaborative tools, such as use of interactive web-based technology to expand the reach of vendor communications (e.g., live webinar with streaming video to immediately address questions from the vendor community), as available and appropriate.
  6. Develop dynamic interactive mechanisms for communicating more effectively with vendors about contracting opportunities, if practicable.
  7. Publicize accurate and timely procurement forecasts to increase small businesses participation.
  8. Provide industry with incentives to identify opportunities for government cost savings (e.g., prizes/challenges; innovation awards), as appropriate.
  9. HHS emphasis on the Open Government principles of transparency, collaboration, and participation are embodied in this approach to our work.  Crowd sourcing practices coupled with the use of challenges and competitions that award prizes for problem-solving are powerful innovation levers located at http://www.hhs.gov/open/.
  10. ACT-IAC hosted a conference from February 7-28, 2011 on improving the federal acquisition process. 

    HHS does allow for the limited use of social media and access to social media sites. To regulate the use of social media, HHS issued the HHS-OCIO Policy for Social Media Technologies, dated March 31, 2010, which is located at http://www.hhs.gov/ocio/policy/policy_2010-0003.1_-_ocio.html.

2.3. Vendor Input on Acquisitions

2.3.1 Pre-award phase

The Department encourages early exchanges of information about future acquisitions. An early exchange of information among industry, the Program Manager, Contracting Officer, and other participants in the acquisition process can identify and resolve concerns regarding:

  1. The availability of commercial item solutions.
  2. Capabilities of small and large business concerns to meet agency requirements.
  3. Requirements of any laws and regulations unique to the item being acquired.
  4. The availability of items that contain recovered materials and items that are energy efficient.
  5. The acquisition strategy -- including proposed contract type, terms and conditions, and acquisition planning schedules.
  6. The feasibility of the requirement -- including performance requirements, statements of work, and data requirements.
  7. The suitability of the proposal instructions and evaluation criteria -- including the approach for assessing past performance information.

The Department supports the following techniques to promote early exchanges of information, whenever practicable and appropriate:

  1. Industry days and small business conferences.
  2. One-on-one meetings with potential offerors.
  3. Pre-solicitation notices.
  4. Draft Requests for Quotes/Proposals.
  5. Requests for Information.
  6. Pre-solicitation or pre-proposal conferences, including those facilitated through the use of collaborative technology including webinars and wikis.
  7. Site visits.

2.3.2.Vendor Engagement Strategy

HHS has an Information Technology (IT) Investment Review Board (ITIRB) at the Agency level and the Operating Division (OPDIV) level (OPDIV ITIRBs).  The primary mission of the HHS ITIRB is to implement an investment management process that drives budget formulation and execution for IT investments. Additionally, the HHS ITIRB ensure that each IT investment requiring Department and OPDIV review complies with Capital Planning and Investment Control (CPIC) and other management policies (e.g., IT, Financial, Acquisition, Enterprise Architecture, and Security).  The HHS ITIRB reviews of IT investments are guided by the stage gate review requirements of the HHS Enterprise Performance Life Cycle (EPLC), the project management framework by which IT is governed and managed through rigorous application of sound investment and project management principles and best practices.   Industry and government experience demonstrates that the quality of IT projects is directly proportional to the quality of the governance and management processes used to acquire and operate the IT products those projects produce.

At a minimum, the acquisition plans and strategies included as part of the business cases for high-risk, large-dollar, and complex IT investments (including re-competitions that need to attract new entrants to ensure adequate competition and offer HHS innovative and efficient solutions) should include a comprehensive vendor engagement strategy that incorporates each of the following:

  1. At least one industry day or pre-solicitation or pre-proposal conference.
  2. A reasonable amount of one-on-one engagement.
  3. Time for discussions, as needed and in accordance with FAR Part 15, during the proposal evaluation process.
  4. Improve project performance by applying repeatable processes and industry-leading practices for project and earned value management.
  5. Ascertain if a preliminary Acquisition Plan that is appropriate to the level of the requirements definition is part of the Business Case, and includes performance-based acquisitions. Verify that the overall acquisition plan includes consideration of internal versus external acquisition, re-use, the use of commercial off-the-shelf technologies, and, if Requests for Information are necessary, how contracting work will be divided, and expected contract types.
  6. Encourage HHS staff to use collaborative tools, such as wikis and interactive web-based technology to expand the reach of vendor communications (e.g., live webinar with streaming video to immediately address questions from the vendor community), as available and appropriate. 

If such vendor engagement is not deemed feasible, then a written justification must be included in the acquisition plan and strategy.

2.4. Publication of Engagement Events

Operating Divisions/Staff Divisions (OPDIVs/STAFFDIVs) are highly encouraged to publish vendor engagement events -- including industry days, small business outreach sessions, pre-solicitation conferences, RFP question and answer sessions, etc. -- as far in advance as practicable.  These shall be posted and updated regularly using the existing “special notices” function on www.FedBizOpps.gov and other sites identified by individual OPDIVs/STAFFDIVs as being most effective and appropriate.

  1. The HHS National Institutes of Health (NIH) host vendor café monthly, except September and December.
  2. The HHS NIH host a Small Business Industry Day annually between May and June.
  3. The HHS NIH Research Festival held in the fall (October 2011).
  4. Virtual Data Center (VDC) Industry Day Webinar held Oct 14, 2011(Indefinite Delivery-Indefinite Quantity (IDIQ) Contracts to support the VDC for small and large businesses).
  5. Baltimore Washington Corridor Chamber-- 19th Annual Baltimore Washington Regional Government Procurement Fair, October 26, 2011.
  6. The HHS Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) Vendor Outreach, October 31, 2011
  7. Veteran Owned, Service Disabled Veteran Owned, Historically Underutilized Business Zone, 8(a) Small Business (VH8 day)), November 15, 2011.

3. Roles and Responsibilities

Brief descriptions of acquisition team members’ roles and responsibilities are provided below.

3.1. Contracting Officers (COs) and Contract Specialists (CSs)

These individuals are responsible for serving as the focal point for communicating with industry during all active acquisitions, including:

  1. Determining the timing, frequency, and degree of vendor engagement necessary.
  2. Identifying the appropriate means of communication (e.g., holding one-on-one meetings, hosting vendor days, issuing Requests for Information (RFIs), releasing draft solicitations, or using any combination of methods).  When doing so, the CO is encouraged to:
    1. Consider methods that would generate new entrants to the market and increase competition.
    2. Work with the OSDBU and the respective small business specialist to identify the best ways to reach out to small business.
  3. Provide guidance and direction to integrated project team members, as needed.
  4. Document market research efforts, as appropriate.
  5. Understand the agency procurement forecast and where to find it in order to discuss related vendor inquiries.

3.2. Program/Project Managers (P/PMs)

These individuals are responsible for identifying agency needs and understanding vendor capabilities and technologies, as well as planning requirements to meet agency needs.  In addition, P/PM are responsible for each of the following:

  1. Conferring with the CO early and often to plan effective and efficient market research.
  2. Assisting the CO by estimating the expected level of competition for different procurement strategies, based upon an evaluation of current market capabilities.
  3. Collaborating with the CO to develop formal vendor engagement strategies.
  4. Understanding the agency procurement forecast and where to find it in order to discuss related vendor inquiries.

3.3. Contracting Officer Representatives (CORs)/Contracting Officer Technical Representative (COTRs)

These individuals are responsible for providing technical direction to the contractor, monitoring contractor performance, reviewing and accepting/rejecting contractor invoices, and serving as the “eyes and ears” of the CO regarding certain aspects of contractor performance, or otherwise assisting/representing the CO, as delegated by the CO in writing, including the following:

  1. Identify ways to improve communication after award, such as holding post-award administration meetings.
  2. Ensure communications with contractors do not trigger to constructive changes to the contract.

3.4. Office of General Counsel (OGC)

OGC is responsible for providing legal interpretation of applicable laws and regulations, and contract terms and conditions, as necessary and appropriate.

In addition, OGC is responsible for providing advice to the COs and other members of the integrated project team regarding appropriate communication strategies in terms of content, delivery, timing, etc.

3.5. Ethics Coordinators

These individuals are responsible for providing ethics-related advice and guidance, including ethical considerations regarding communication between acquisition personnel and vendors.

3.6. Senior Procurement Executive (SPE) and Heads of Contracting Activity (HCA)

The Senior Procurement Executive (SPE) is responsible for promoting vendor engagement, updating this Plan, as needed and overseeing Heads of Contracting Activity (HCA) implementation of the Plan.

HCAs are responsible for removing any unnecessary communication barriers and taking active steps to increase engagement with industry, including large and small businesses.  In addition, HCAs will take full advantage of OFPP’s Community of Practice (COP) on this subject to leverage successful practices.

3.7. Acquisition Career Managers (ACMs)

These individuals are responsible for providing P/PMs, COs, CSs, and CORs/COTRs training opportunities to:  (a) strengthen vendor engagement; and (b) develop a better understanding of permissible communications.

3.8. Office of Small & Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU) and Small Business Specialists

OSDBU is responsible for maximizing contracting opportunities for small business concerns, promoting market research, where applicable, providing assistance to OPDIVs/STAFFDIVs in reaching out to the small business community, and reviewing and approving HHS Form 653s – Small Business Review Forms..  In addition, they are responsible for each of the following:

  1. Understanding the agency procurement forecast and where to find it in order to discuss related vendor inquiries.
  2. Using the Small Business Central Event Listing at www.FedBizOpps.gov to publicize outreach events, as appropriate.

3.9. Competition Advocate

Among other roles, the Competition Advocate will serve as the HHS Communication Ombudsman -- providing targeted outreach and assistance to the vendor community and serving as a focal point for vendors seeking to do business with HHS, especially vendors who may not previously have been considered. This will complement OSDBUS’s technical assistance. In addition OSDBU will continue to perform this liaison role for the small business community.

3.10. Chief Information Officers (CIOs) and Chief Technology Officers (CTOs)

These individuals may recommend ways to use new social media and collaborative technologies to increase vendor outreach and assist the acquisition community in developing pertinent rules and record keeping.

4. Training and Awareness Efforts for Government Employees and Contractors

The Department supports OPDIV/STAFFDIV use of the following mechanisms to implement training and awareness efforts for government employees and contractors:

  1. Web-based training modules and classroom training programs on permissible exchanges with industry.
  2. Informal onsite training sessions (e.g., brown-bag lunch seminars; town hall meetings) to discuss exchanges with industry.
  3. Desk references and job aids that provide information on industry engagement.

5. Links to Regulatory Authorities

  1. Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Part 10
  2. Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) Subpart 15.201
  3. Health and Human Services Acquisition Regulation (HHSAR) Subpart 315.201
  4. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Acquisition Regulation (HHSAR) establishes uniform HHS acquisition policies and procedures that implement and supplement the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) System located at http://www.hhs.gov/asfr/ogapa/acquisition/policies/index.html
  5. HHS is committed to helping small businesses in their pursuit of health and human services related contracts. Learn about our opportunities for you to learn about HHS, its contracting opportunities, and how we can do business together located at http://www.hhs.gov/about/smallbusiness/

6. Plans to Follow-up with Employees and Industry Representatives within 6 Months

Within 6 months of the posting of this Plan, the Department will conduct a survey of stakeholders, including HCAs, COs, Contract Specialists, CORs/PMs, and industry, to gauge the Plan’s overall effectiveness and identify opportunities to expand vendor engagement.