The thin line between undue influence and relationship building in the public sector

Posted on October 7, 2014


Three years ago, I interviewed Judy Bradt regarding a discussion I had with a former senior aide to New York Governor Cuomo regarding his assertion that the majority of contract winners in the state had been determined before an actual RFP was issued.

Bradt’s response was insightful and deft in achieving the balance between positioning yourself to win and gaining an unfair advantage. Specifically, and referencing a fully transparent engagement strategy, Bradt indicated that far too many vendors do not proactively pursue government opportunities, waiting instead until they receive electronic notification of the RFP. According to Bradt, this practice is too late to get in the game, likening it to a runner showing up at the starting line on race day without training and expecting to win. She concurred that those who build relationships before the RFP is issued have a definite advantage.

With just under 20,000 views, the subject matter and Bradt’s perspective obviously struck a chord with those in the industry.

You can watch the entire interview by clicking on the image below.

Bradt Interview

Bradt’s commentary notwithstanding, the news that a VA official “misused her position” to help a vendor both win and keep business raises the question . . . what is the line between garnering justified favor through transparent relationship building and influence peddling?

The vendor in question, FedBid, is, as they say, well “connected” through a strong network of key government influencers both within and external to the public sector. So much so that when the original investigation into their practices led to a moratorium that interrupted the flow of significant dollars, the backlash from the company’s friends in high places was substantial. According to the allegations, the cash flow was restored in relatively short order, with no small thanks, according to Susan M. Taylor, the deputy chief procurement officer with the Veterans Health Administration.

I have been covering the VHA for many years through a series of articles and a companion white paper I wrote back in 2005. Suffice it to say; this organization has had many issues, including the Bay Pines incident – which led to a congressional hearing. My research of the Bay Pines story found a good deal of fear on the part of those with whom I had talked regarding possible repercussions if they were “identified” as the source of my information. Said concerns notwithstanding, speak they did, and in the course of our many conversations, they provided me with an inside look at an agency in turmoil.

Considering this history, one might be inclined to conclude that the recent VA revelations reflect serious conflict issues at the highest levels. While there are issues that need addressing, is corruption really one of them?

I don’t have a definitive answer in this particular case – at least not until I have had the opportunity to do further research. However, as indicated in my March 13th, 2012 post, “With VA procurement, the level of service and care veterans receive should be the primary focus. Would the same circumstances generate the same kind of outcry if the relationship only involved private sector organizations?


Posted in: Commentary