Kelman: Management trumps oversight

Contracting oversight should not be mistaken for good management

There is some potential good news out there for the understaffed and overwhelmed contracting workforce. The view is growing in Congress and among people around the incoming Obama administration that the contracting and acquisition workforces are understaffed and undertrained and that not spending money to deal with those problems is penny-wise and pound-foolish.

However, with that good news also comes some less-good news. In describing what this beefed-up workforce is expected to do, members of Congress and the media have been saying that its job is contract oversight. Indeed, the Washington Post regularly refers to contracting officers as contract oversight officers.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a professor, but I am very sensitive to words and their implications. I always refer to the task that contracting and program officials should undertake after a contract award as “contract management.”  I fear that the term “oversight,” used by Congress and the media creates two huge problems. First, it impoverishes our concept of what government needs to do to get successful results. Second, it undermines the very aim of trying to beef up and improve the workforce.

By oversight, I mean monitoring to check if contract provisions, including any performance metrics, have been complied with, in addition to checking whether work that has been billed for has been performed and charged correctly. Oversight is a subset of contract management, but only a subset.

Contract management involves many important functions that have nothing to do with such monitoring. One is to inspire and motivate the contractor and government workforces working on the contract by creating a sense of excitement and mission orientation. Another is to facilitate necessary information sharing across organizational boundaries between government programmatic subject-matter experts and contractor experts in the technologies or solutions being provided the government. A third is to appropriately manage the contract modification process. And, of course, successful contracting requires good requirements definitions and performance metrics — developed before a contract is awarded and evolving during contract performance. If those central management tasks are forgotten in the definition of what contracting and program officials do, the chance for successful contract results declines
dramatically.

Second, the word “management” is a far more attractive one for the contracting and acquisition workforces than “oversight” is. Although government does not do enough to nurture a management culture, the job of management is generally considered a high-prestige occupation in our society, one performed by intelligent and committed people.

The bottom line: Congress, the media and the fear industry (surprise, surprise!) are doing a disservice to good contracting by using the expression “contract oversight” to replace “contract management,” and the rest of us should be talking about improved contract management as what we seek.

Kelman (steve_kelman@harvard.edu) is professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

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