Office of Environmental Management

Ralph Holland Reflects on Tenure in EM Update Interview After Recently Retiring

January 9, 2018

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Ralph Holland retired at the end of 2017 after a 35-year career in federal service. EM Update spoke with him to look back over his tenure in EM and where the cleanup program stands today in enlisting the best of private industry and managing projects.
Ralph Holland retired at the end of 2017 after a 35-year career in federal service. EM Update spoke with him to look back over his tenure in EM and where the cleanup program stands today in enlisting the best of private industry and managing projects.

EM utilizes contractors to perform the vast majority of its work in the field. Looking back over your tenure, how good of a job do you think the Department does in soliciting and employing the best in private industry to perform the EM mission?

To begin with, it has been my experience that the contractors performing across the EM complex are outstanding problem solvers. DOE draws proposals from, and does business with, most of the nationally recognized leaders in the industry. So, by that standard, EM has done a good job of attracting the industry leaders to our market.  

That said, the barriers to entry into the EM market remain a challenge for those who wish to bring related skills and experience to support the EM mission. Finding ways to appropriately credit those skills and experience is something that we talked about many times, and, I would imagine, will continue to be an important area of consideration for EM going forward. This will be particularly important in light of the recent consolidation we’ve seen across multiple segments of the industry. 

At the end of the day, who EM attracts, and how successful the resulting contracts are is greatly influenced by a significant number of external variables. Recognizing those variables, or risks, and crafting agreements that fairly and appropriately allocate those risks, will have the long-term benefit of supporting both mission execution and promoting a viable industry base into the future.

Do you feel EM has done a good job of rewarding contractors for strong performance, and for taking action and holding contractors accountable when they do not perform as expected?

Generally, yes. The challenge is in developing contract structures that appropriately account for the risks that are such a major factor in virtually every activity across the EM portfolio.

Looking back with your experience, how do small businesses best fit into the overall EM mission and program? How good of a job do you think EM has done in recruiting and employing small businesses? Are there improvements that could be made?

I don’t think there is a “one size fits all” solution to how small businesses best fit. Rather, the best fit is the role that fits best with the skills, experiences, and aspirations of the small business itself. While I’ve heard on a number of occasions that small businesses’ primary desire is to participate either as a teaming partner or significant subcontractor performing discrete portions of the work scope as a means to grow their business, this isn’t always the case. This is certainly understandable, if that is truly the goal of a particular small business. However, there are a number of very capable small businesses that have been quite successful in the staff augmentation side of the business and wish to continue in that role. This is a perfectly viable business model that has stood the test of time.

The point is that there are many different models in the small business community, and the definition of success varies from one firm to the next. In that context, I do believe that EM has been quite successful in recruiting and employing small businesses across the spectrum. Perhaps the best evidence of this success lies in the fact that, when we consider DOE prime contracts, teaming arrangements, and subcontracts, in a typical year approximately 50 percent of EM’s annual contract spend goes to small businesses. Considering the nature of the EM’s mission, that is a rather impressive result.

Is there room for improvement? As virtually every one of EM’s business partners in industry would be quick to answer, yes, there is always room for improvement. I certainly expect that EM will continue the dialogue with its industry partners, consider the invaluable feedback they provide, and continue to apply lessons learned from the application of that feedback.

Do you think there are any misconceptions about how EM carries out acquisition and procurement? For those who may be looking to do business with the EM program, is there any advice you would give?

Based on the questions I’ve received over the years from industry, I think significant misconceptions remain about how EM conducts procurements. Having been involved in DOE acquisitions for more than 20 years, I can state without reservation that the teams DOE fields to conduct its procurements are staffed with highly skilled professionals who take their duties of impartiality and fairness very seriously. In EM acquisitions, conducting acquisitions that impartially identify the offeror who provides the best solution to addressing the mission need is first and foremost in the minds of every SEB (Source Evaluation Board), SSO (Source Selection Official), and the reviewers at every step of the process. Anyone who thinks otherwise doesn’t really understand how the process works.

While I don’t think it’s my place to offer advice, I offer the following comment. The most successful contractors doing work for EM are those who understand that the key to long-term success is offering and delivering value to the Department. 

EM has made progress in removing itself from the GAO’s (Government Accountability Office) biannual high-risk list, but it has not yet fully gotten off the list. How would you assess EM’s work to improve and strengthen project and contract management, and what further work may still be needed?

DOE, and EM specifically, has made great progress in strengthening the areas for improvement identified by the GAO. The processes the Department has put in place for capital asset projects continues to mature and has brought significant improvements to the rigor and consistency in the way by which DOE oversees the management of its capital projects. It’s noteworthy, however, that most of the EM portfolio is not covered by the capital asset order. To bring greater strength and attention to the balance of the portfolio, and in fact, to put management of the entire program under a single policy, EM issued the Cleanup Policy last year.  

The work yet to be done is to apply the early lessons learned from implementation of the Cleanup Policy, and adjust where needed. More importantly, it is critical that the entire EM Program internalize the Cleanup Policy and universally adopt it as “the way EM manages its program.”

Will that get EM off the GAO High-Risk List? That’s for others to say. However, getting off the list isn’t really the point. Rather, continuing to improve the way the program is managed and executed has been, and presumably will continue to be, the objective for EM going forward. To that end, external reviews, like the GAO High-Risk List, is healthy for the program and good for the taxpayers because it challenges us to get better.

What’s the one thing you’re most proud of during your tenure in EM? 

This is a tough question. I had the opportunity to be a part of any number of specific events that occurred over the past 20 years or so, but great accomplishments in EM are always the result of the combined efforts of a great number of federal and contractor staff. Certainly playing a small role with the closure of Fernald, Mound, and others brought a great sense of accomplishment, participating in numerous major negotiations over the years was always both challenging and rewarding, and helping the EM complex successfully place some $6 billion on contracts in something like six months during the ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) days was like nothing else I’ve experienced before or since.  

But the one thing? That would have to be the success of the EMCBC (EM Consolidated Business Center). While this is certainly an accomplishment that is shared with a great many people, to have had the opportunity to be involved from the beginning, when the entire CBC consisted of a total of five managers and one extremely efficient and effective executive assistant, and to have watched the CBC grow into what it is today has been a tremendously gratifying experience. We were extremely fortunate to have had great success in attracting a workforce that is professional in every sense of the word, and extremely dedicated to the EM mission. It was a true honor and privilege to have spent the last 13 years helping the CBC develop and mature into the indispensable part of the EM Program it has become.

Lastly, what are you looking forward to most in retirement?

Two things — dialing back the pace a bit and having more time to spend on an almost endless number of projects that have been on hold for far too long.

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