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

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 both insightful and deft in terms of 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 an electronic notification of the RFP. This, according to Bradt, is too late to get in the game, likening it to a runner showing up at the starting line on race day without previously training and expecting to win the race.  She concurred that those who build relationships before the RFP is issued have a definite advantage.

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

You can listen to the interview in its entirety 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 reminiscent of Watergate scandal antics such as the famous Canuck letter.  The flow of cash was restored in relatively short order, with no small thanks according to the allegations, 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 corresponding white paper I wrote back in 2005.  Suffice to say, this is an organization that has had many issues, including the Bay Pines incident – which it should be noted led to a congressional hearing.  In my research of the Bay Pines story, there was 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.

Taking this history into account, one might be inclined to conclude that the recent VA revelations reflect serious issues of conflict at the highest levels.  While there are obviously issues that need to be addressed, 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, and 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 set of circumstances have led to the same kind of outcry if the relationship only involved private sector organizations?


Posted in: Commentary