Work (statements) of art
Nine days after arriving in his new position as assistant to the deputy chief acquisition officer at the Coast Guard, Rory Souther took on the job of analyzing the high-profile Deepwater acquisition program.
Souther knew the agency wanted an independent product analysis done in less than five months for the massive modernization program. Analyzing a program as complex as Deepwater was bound to be difficult, but Souther realized it would be harder than he had expected because of a lack of well-defined requirements.
How could he assess Deepwater’s progress without a clear sense of the program’s goals?
Government and industry procurement experts say such problems, common in government, often can be traced back to difficulties at the beginning of the procurement process when contracting officers must translate program requirements into a performance work statement.
Too often, contracting officers are given few requirements, so they struggle to write those critical work statements, experts say.
The work statement gives contracting officers a clear description of a project’s overall purpose and specific goals. That information then guides the development of the contract requirements that give potential bidders a good understanding of what the agency expects from them. A good work statement is at the heart of a successful contract, and of a successful project, acquisition experts say.
In 2002, the Coast Guard decided those statements were too important to leave to chance.Help on hand
To help contracting officers and program managers such as Souther, the Coast Guard assembled a team that acts as a guide through acquisitions. The Customer Advocacy and Assistance Team (CAAT) sits down with the managers and various contract officers involved in supervising the contract to sketch the objectives of the project.
“They held my hand and took me to exactly the type of [work statement] that we needed to describe the product and get the work done on time,” Souther said.
To start a project’s work statement, the CAAT hosts kickoff meetings with an integrated solutions team of the program managers, contracting officers and contract specialists, who handle much of the acquisition after the contract is awarded. The meetings come after the CAAT has received information about the project’s acquisition details, such as a proposed acquisition strategy and the anticipated award date.
The early meetings are just informational, said said Barbara Greely, a CAAT member and division chief for planning and procedures at the Coast Guard Acquisition Directorate’s Office of Contract Operations.
The team asks what the managers want to buy and what outcome they’re seeking. The services the manager wants to buy dictate the best type of contract to use.
Although the contracting officers must attend at least the initial meeting, the project manager provides the in-depth knowledge at the subsequent face-to-face discussions. The manager brings the CAAT a thorough understanding of the project’s requirements, its direction and final objective. The manager’s role at this stage is to ensure that the work statements accurately describe the agency’s needs.
Before writing the work statement, the CAAT’s job is to ask detailed questions designed to gather information about the project’s goals and outcomes and how the manager would measure performance.
In other words, “What, Mr. Program Manager, would it take to make you happy?” Greely said.
Lisa Akers, director of the Federal Systems Integration and Management Center, a national assisted acquisition services program at the General Services Administration, said an agency needs specialized employees to get those answers from project managers. The employees must be good listeners and writers who are fascinated by acqui sition regulation, she said. They also have to be curious enough to ask complex and thorough questions.
“They’re our ‘requirements whisperers,’ ” Akers said.A ‘mind-shift’ in agencies
Changes in acquisition policies have made the CAAT members and the requirements whisperers important. They are drawing out various details about requirements from the technical people who have worked for years in requirements-based acquisitions, but are now being pushed to performance-based acquisitions.
Greely said the changes in federal acquisition offices require “a mind-shift,” which has proven difficult for some people.
The government has written detailed, prescriptive statements of work for as long as anyone can remember. These statements lay out explicit requirements for contractors. But now, performance-based acquisition is preferred. This method is a results-oriented strategy, giving flexibility to contractors to meet an agency’s needs in the way the contractor believes will get the desired results.
During the previous five years, Souther said, he had written many of those traditional statements of work, with unambiguous terms and often meticulous details about commodities. Like many old-school managers, he found it tough at first to get his mind around performance-based contracting, he said.
Evelyn DePalma, a recently retired procurement director at the Defense Information Systems Agency, said people have done contract work statements one way for their entire careers, and “they struggle to see a different method.”
Program managers often come to contracting officers with specific requirements definitions for a contract, and the contracting officer will ask them to rewrite it as a performance work statement. The request will sometimes be difficult to fulfill because “the program manager hadn’t thought about it in that respect,” DePalma said.
In the old days, an agency that needed to buy toothbrushes would send out long papers complete with an exhaustive description and a diagram, said Robert Burton, deputy administrator at Office of Federal Procurement Policy, who actually saw such a proposal.
“That’s what we’re trying to get away from,” he said.How the culture is changing
The art of writing work statements is changing as the government pushes toward performance-based acquisitions. But it’s hard for workers to change with it, Akers said.
“It’s a culture, not a contract method,” she said.
Many people assume the difficulties with culture change is simply about agency leaders wanting to stay in control and not cede the lead role to a contractor, she said. But that isn’t necessarily the sticking point. “They see that their mission is riding on this contractor support, and they care about it so much,” she said.
Performance-based acquisitions hinge on communication and managing expectations between parties, experts say. The government has worked for years at arm’s length from contractors, avoiding close partnerships. “And that’s why we end up with problems,” Burton said.
When conversations break down and a project teeters, it’s time for contractors and project managers to come back to the table for discussions, Akers said. Once on course again, the manager must again trust the contractor, she said.
“We have to change our basic culture regarding how we do business,” Burton said, adding that he’s confident that agencies can change. “We have no other choice.”
Agencies are turning to the performance-based approach with their growth in complex services contracts, and that is pushing contracting officers and program managers into new ways of thinking about work statements.
To help with their thinking, the Coast Guard’s project managers and contracting officers go to the CAAT, even though the agency no longer requires it. The CAAT developed more than 400 work statements from 2002 to 2005 and more than 90 in 2007. The team has handled a total of roughly 800 statements since 2002.
“The CAAT team really helped me get through the darkness,” Souther said.