Aronie: Foolish consistency

Some people hide behind the 'this is the way we always do it' shield

I have a foolish consistency story to share. And it's one I suspect many of you have experienced, too.

One of my clients had just renewed its General Services Administration schedule contract and was negotiating its small-business subcontracting plan. Not wanting to promise subcontracting goals company officials knew they couldn't meet, we proposed goals that were reasonable given the nature of the client's business and the geographic remoteness of its operations.

After all, we reasoned, wouldn't goals that were within reach but still a stretch do more to promote small-business subcontracting than goals that were unrealistically high?

Some time after our submission, we received a phone call from the contracting officer who rejected our plan. According to him, we had to meet or exceed the federal goals.

When we explained that this was not the law and that we could not meet the federal goals, the contracting officer told us not to worry about it. "They're just goals," he said.

We said we didn't feel comfortable establishing goals that we knew we couldn't achieve, but our response fell on deaf ears. Our subsequent attempt to show the policy-promoting logic behind our more realistic goals suffered a similar fate. All the contracting officer was willing to accept were the federal goals.

We completed the plan as instructed. And in response to the question in the plan that asks, "How did you come up with your goals?" we said they "were mandated by our contracting officer." Call us bold.

As you may have guessed, the contracting officer was not impressed with our honesty. He ordered the offending — but accurate — language to be removed from the plan. We dutifully removed the words, and we all ultimately agreed on language that worked for both parties.

What bothers me about this story is not that the contracting officer didn't like our language — we expected that. What bothers me is his initial refusal — "that's how we always do it" — to undertake any meaningful effort to identify a mutually acceptable solution to a contractor's legitimate problem. Simply put, our contracting officer was foolishly consistent.

Of course, I wouldn't be wasting your time with this story if I didn't see this as part of a larger problem in federal procurement. Although I have great respect for many contracting officers and I appreciate their tremendous workload, there are those within government who are all too willing to hide behind the "this is the way we always do it" shield.

There's nothing wrong with consistency. But foolish consistency is, well, you know the rest. We should expect more from our contracting officers.

Aronie is a partner in the government contracts group of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton in Washington, D.C., and co- author of "Multiple Award Schedule Contracting." He can be reached at jaronie @sheppardmullin.com or (202) 218-0039.

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