LEONARD GRANT is the Head of Contracting Activity and Director of the Office of Acquisition & Grants Services (OAGS) at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The OAGS is the single organization within the FDA that holds the authority for awarding contracts, grants and inter-agency agreements. NCMA CEO Kraig Conrad met with Grant in early September to discuss his career trajectory and what he sees for the future of the FDA.
Kraig Conrad (KC)
Thinking about your career journey, which of the opportunities did you grab, which were things that just happened, and which were things that were just pure luck?
Leonard Grant (LG)
My 30-year journey in acquisitions started through the military. I was able to learn about acquisitions in a course that I was taking, Officer Basic Course at Fort Lee. I was a Quartermaster officer, and I found the ability to purchase on behalf of the government intriguing. As I did more research, I learned that acquisitions is a career field that had unlimited career growth and that the federal government needed contract specialists and contracting officers both in the military and civilian government agencies. After this course, I had the opportunity to talk with a senior leader at the FDA. In our meeting she opened up a book and explained, “These are the areas that I have responsibility over: human resourc-es, facilities, financial management, and acquisitions.” Since I had knowledge of acquisitions, I thought, “I want to try that.” I was able to interview and eventu-ally got a position within the Division of Contracts and Grants Management.
When I started, I wasn’t a contract specialist. I came in as a GS5 secretary. About 6 months later I was converted to a contract specialist. As I look back on my 30-year journey, there were a lot of different opportunities I was able to experience. I grabbed all opportunities that came my way. These included being able to go out in the field and conduct pre-award site surveys, being a part of FDA labs being built or seeing the science behind what was going to be ultimately awarded. I did that in Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Jamaica, New York.
I also had the opportunity to attend the Federal Regulation Acquisition (FAR) Bootcamp—I think Vern Edwards was the teacher at the time—and I was able to get through that course. That course had a significant impact on my knowledge of the FAR. I was one of the few people who got a perfect score on the exam. This was even after being away from procurement for a while because I had done some time in Iraq. I had come back after probably an 18-month layoff. I remember putting the flashcards together to memorize the parts of the FAR. I still have those flashcards today, and I still from time to time look back at them just to check my memory.
More recently, I had the opportunity to work with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and be a part of a workgroup that was responsible for updating the Health and Human Services Acquisition Regulation (HHSAR) or representing HHS on one of the FAR Council subcommittees, the FAR Acquisition Technology Team. This provided me with knowledge and understanding about the rule-making process.
In general, if an opportunity came, I tried to take advantage of it. I was young. I was trying to gain experience. I really wanted to be technically competent, and so everything that was thrown my way, I tried to volunteer for. I tried to stretch myself or challenge myself even when I didn’t feel confident. I choose to be an acquisition professional and I wanted to excel at it. I believe I was rewarded for that effort. I started off as a secretary, and now here I am a member of the Senior Executive Service and the Head of Contracting Activity (HCA) at the FDA.
KC: I’m sure that for most of the 30 years, there were a lot of exciting things going on. But the last few years with COVID-19, things are a tad bit different. You had labs with people coming in, and you had folks that were there for emergency-use authorization who needed to be available and accessible. Can you talk about how you approach that, as well as any contracting activity you needed to do to support the FDA’s mission in COVID-19?
LG: Absolutely. First, let me say, I’m honored to be a part of the FDA and humbled by the work of our leadership and the scientists who are doing a yeoman’s job in trying to promote and protect public health, especially during these unprecedented times battling COVID-19. My office, the Office of Acquisitions and Grant Services, stood ready and able to provide the procurement and acquisition support needed to help the science of the FDA. Working with HHS, we utilized procurement flexibilities as allowed to streamline the process when needed. We were able to provide support in a lot of different ways. There were different types of needs from scientific support, lab equipment, translation services, developing systems, access to information and national data, to collaborating with other agencies. Within my office, I am responsible for contracts, grants, inter-agency agreements, as well as oversight of the purchase card program. Through all of these instruments, my staff was able to support the science of the FDA.
When you talk about COVID-19 testing, yes, we were tasked to put a contract in place to support testing for the agency. At first it was just our FDA inspectors, who were visiting various facilities conducting their inspections. It was important to ensure that they were protected and safe. Plus, some of the facilities they were inspecting wanted to be sure that the inspectors were free of COVID-19 when coming into their facilities. Later, the contract expanded to testing for not only our FDA employees, but our contractors as well. Overall, OAGS has been looking at various ways and opportunities to support the FDA in the battle against COVID-19 through the acquisition work that needed to be done.
KC: You mentioned services and technologies, so certainly a lot of what you offer or what you provide to support the FDA mission is technology information. Can you talk about how software as a service and the IT effects of remote work during COVID-19 have affected the ways you and your team procure contracts for IT?
LG: Probably the biggest challenge was that transition to 100% remote work for those tasks that were portable. My office collaborated with the Office of Information Management and Technology (OIMT) and its efforts to increase the overall capabilities of the FDA employees, which was done through various web technologies and communication networks such as WebEx, Zoom, Microsoft Teams. These contract actions were executed through existing contract vehicles.
OAGS supported the IT science to help FDA access certain commercial health data and data in general. We quickly executed contracts to obtain commercially available health data that was used in the agency’s COVID-19 response.
OAGS also helped with the food-chain supply management and other scientific or laboratory areas. OAGS executed contracts to provide expert logistics and supply chain management support. We purchased lab equipment needed in the various labs through the country.
In terms of some of the other cloud services, we’re continuing to collaborate with OIMT to build that support and ensure that we are advancing our technology and supporting the science of the FDA.
KC: We’ve talked a lot about category management lately, and there are different flavors of it. Certainly, the U.S. Air Force has one that’s considered most advanced. How have you introduced category management into your acquisition process, and how has it been going so far?
LG: Category management is something that we’ve been doing for a while. In our efforts to support our stakeholders strategically, we always are looking at ways we can buy things efficiently, streamline the process, and use our financial resources optimally—and category management has helped with that. I remember at one time it was called strategic sourcing— looking at various commodities and services and seeing where we can affect spending in those particular areas.
Here at the FDA, category management has been a key focus. We are trying to strategically improve the acquisition planning and requirements definition to enhance processes to increase organizational efficiencies in spending. In an effort to maximize the mission of FDA, we are using category management to eliminate redundancies and deliver more value and savings for FDA programs. I worked with my procurement staff and our stakeholders to ensure that we’re utilizing the best-in-class vehicles and managing our spend under management.
In terms of processes, OAGS typically collaborates with our stake-holders and have them provide us with their requirements for the next fiscal year. Next, we take a look at that the requirements and perform an analysis of where we can utilize category management. For example, if it’s in the area of IT, my office determines where we can best use either General Services Administration (GSA) schedules. NASA SEWP, or the National Institute of Health (NIH) Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center (NITAAC) CIO-SP3 vehicles.
All in all, we support category management. FDA is also a part of a larger effort working with HHS in its initiative on BUYSMARTER. We are looking at category management at the HHS level for all the operating divisions: the FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Indian Health Services (IHS), Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) and so on. The goal is to collectively look at some of the commodities that we purchase and gain greater efficiencies from a larger procurement purchase. The BUYSMARTER initiative maximizes HHS group purchasing power to drive better pricing and achieve better terms and conditions while reducing the number of contracts needed and shifting acquisition staff to work on higher-priority, mission critical work.
KC: I’m sure you had the same problems as other organizations, facilities, and hospitals in getting access to personal protective equipment (PPE) at the start of the pandemic. How did you deal with the shortages, and specifically the area around validating authenticity of supplies, making sure you were getting things that were not fakes?
LG: Fortunately, we weren’t really impacted by the shortages. The FDA had supplies available, and we were able to assist hospitals and other organizations in providing them with PPE. We really didn’t face that same challenge that maybe other organizations did. Also, we had
the support of the HHS in getting additional masks when needed. Later, my office was tasked with vetting some of the companies and the supplies that were available such as cleaning supplies, disinfectants, and other products that were needed to support those who were working in the labs or might be returning to the facilities. Ultimately, we were able to collaborate with the Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) and put together an agreement to help support some of the needs that we have going forward. So, again, we were just fortunate. We didn’t really have some of the challenges that other entities and medical offices had.
KC: Do you think it was your large laboratory infrastructure and the existing contracts you had there that helped support that?
LG: I believe so. We stood ready. FDA is at the forefront.
KC: Fantastic. Delighted to hear that you’re able to support others as well. Moving on to our final question: What would you say to someone who is considering entering into government service but worried that serving the American mission is really not a role where they can quickly have an impact and make a difference?
LG: Come to the FDA and the Office of Acquisition and Grants Services. You will be challenged, and you will make a difference! The field of acquisitions plays a tremendous role in supporting the mission in any agency. As an acquisition professional, you’re tasked to be “a jack of all trades.” You have to understand appropriations law. You have to understand types of funding and the budget. You have to be able to understand the FAR and any other supplemental regulations. You have to work with the program office and understand their needs. You have to understand the various acquisition strategies and methodologies. There’s a myriad of competencies needed to help meet the mission. The government entrusts the contracting officer to ensure that each award is fiscally responsible and in the best interest of the government. We need the “best and brightest” to contribute to this great profession.
From a procurement standpoint the work we do doesn’t rise to the forefront unless there’s a violation or an infraction reported. We see the news, and it’s usually some sort of violation that gets covered. So, I guess by nature, we spend a lot of time trying to keep our agencies “off the front page” of the news when it comes to procurement. However, behind the scenes the work of the acquisition professional is critical in supporting the mission. I often see evidence of how the contracts we award make a difference. We understand the Department of Defense (DoD) because they often say “we support the warfighter.” Having served in both Afghanistan and Iraq, I’ve seen that in action. However, for civilian agencies, I think it’s the same thing, “we support the agency’s mission.” We can see the tangible evidence. At the FDA, we support protecting and promoting public health. You see it tangibly in all that we do, and you might not even realize it. You go to the doctor, they write you a prescription—FDA. You go to the grocery store, you look at the food label—FDA. You sit in the dental chair—FDA. The various equipment, the x-rays—FDA. The food and care for your pet—FDA. And so, I’m again putting that plug in to that young contract specialist who really wants to be a part of the acquisition field. Yes, you will make a difference. We all make a difference in both DoD and civilian agencies in supporting the missions at hand.
KC: The FDA is a great place to work if you want to have impact. I read that trillions of dollars of commerce is regulated and overseen by the FDA. So, what a great place to come to have impact!
LG: Absolutely! It’s been a pleasure. On this 30-year journey, I’ve had the opportunity to meet a diverse group of people from scientists to business and IT staff to lawyers and of course all the different people in the acquisition world. The acquisition field provided me with the opportunity to continually learn and grow. I’m grateful, and fortunate, that some of these individuals have blessed me to be where I am today and said that I was worthy to be in this position. I’m just happy to be a part of the acquisition profession. I think it’s a great one. CM