Reader Forum

Feuding about fixed-price contracting — and related matters 

The Obama administration’s plans for contracting have many Federal Computer Week readers fired up. You’ve responded to our recent stories on the administration’s plans to review the government's use of certain types of contracts, including cost-plus and performance-based contracts. Along the same lines, we noted that the new stimulus law requires the use of fixed-price contracts "to the maximum extent possible." All of this comes on the heels of President Barack Obama's campaign promise to reduce the government's reliance on contractors.

What does it all mean? Here are some excerpts from readers' comments.

  • Clearly, these so-called experts don't have a clue. For years, the government has been contracting for the best value to the government; that doesn't always mean the lowest price. Often the lowest price equates to lowest quality when we want something better than that. Contractors like cost-plus, time-and-materials or labor-hour contracts because the risk is on the government, and [contractors] still get paid even if they don't deliver (which also doesn't equate to the lowest price if you have to pay them more to do what they didn't complete the first time). They don't like fixed-price because they have to perform to specified performance standards.
  • It would be nice if a legislator with a true contracting background were to write the restrictions. The statement, "Fixed-price contracts cannot be adjusted to account for increases in labor or material expenses that occur after work has started," is patently wrong! Other laws, such as the Service Contract Act, would force increases in labor when the area wage determination is updated. Guess what? That means modifications to all these fixed contracts! That means our small acquisition staff is further burdened with contracting actions and analyses.
  • I believe that all contract types serve a purpose and are appropriate for use in the right situations. While I agree that additional work can be done on the front end to better define requirements, firm fixed-price is not an appropriate contract type for every requirement for a multitude of reasons. And yes, cost-type contracts are sometimes used for the wrong reasons. I really believe that education and training are needed for the acquisition workforce so that contract types are used in the right situations and are administered, managed and monitored appropriately and most effectively.
  • One way to build up the acquisition workforce is to return to a "grow your own" workforce. Going back to having GS-1105s would be a better way to find future acquisition employees. They learn the job from the bottom up and work on their degree at the same time. If they can't perform the work, don't keep/promote them. Hiring college graduates doesn't mean that the person wants or can do the job.
  • There should still be plenty of work for contractors. The key here is to ensure that the tail is not making the decisions for the head. The early assumption was that all government workers needed to know is how to manage and oversee the contract. What was forgotten — much to the contractor's benefit — is that it takes time to grow, through application and experience, many of the skills and knowledge needed to fully understand the requirements and whether outside help is appropriate or needed.


Stressing on stimulus spending

The stimulus spending law is certain to translate into a lot of stress for the federal acquisition workforce. Last month, we reported that the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the Chief Acquisition Officers Council were ready to commence planning a large-scale recruiting initiative if several agencies say they need to hire a substantial number of people.

That prompted numerous readers to discuss the challenge the law poses and the state of the workforce. Here are some excerpts.

  • I see two major problems in the acquisition field. 1) The amount of work and the level of competence required are not equal to the staff provided. 2) Acquisition careers are not tracked equally in Defense Department and non-DOD positions, nor are the perks the same (for example, flextime). I think this causes many people to keep looking for a better place to work. I feel that the DOD procedures should be the standard in government acquisitions.
  • Try providing professional pay and other incentives to attract or retain personnel. It is one of the more secure careers but requires a lot of education and mandated continuous learning as well as keeping up in a constantly changing environment. Other government positions paying the same rates do not require any of this.
  • I have more than 30 years of acquisition experience in the prime-contractor environment, and it took almost one year to be hired by the federal government. The job ad was published in January, I received an interview in September, was selected and then reported to work a few weeks after that. The agency I work for has a high turnover rate due to employee frustrations with users who can't follow through with developing and finalizing their requirements. After five months here, I too, am looking. If you want to get into an acquisition career, look for an employer of choice — one that will offer training, flexible work hours, tuition assistance, etc. [And] negotiate a relocation package — the government is so short-staffed they will pay for your move.
  • I am in contracting with a private-sector company and have sometimes looked for openings on the local military bases, but most everything is only open to current or former government employees. The net needs to be cast a little wider to catch not just current/former government employees but also those in the private sector with the requisite acquisition knowledge.
  • The normal hiring process is too bureaucratic, too long and too laden with support folks who protect their stovepipes to the detriment of the office that needs the skill. I've tried applying a few times and frankly gave up in disgust. I get paid better and treated better out here in industry so why bother?


The perks of working for government

A recent blog post by Judy Welles prompted readers to think about why they work for the government.

Welles noted that with the private sector shedding both jobs and benefits, the government is more attractive to job seekers -- and more appealing to current employees -- than it used to be. While many feds in the past had "plenty of beefs about working for government and about presumed inequities to the private sector, now it seems we are recognizing the many benefits of government work," she wrote.

Here is a sampling of what readers had to say.

  • I’ve been working for the government for 29 years, and I was only making pennies to the dollar to the private-industry folks at that time. But I chose to look at it in a different way rather than who was paying better. I chose to work somewhere I knew I would have a future.
  • I have worked many different jobs, both government and private sector, and have found that benefits vary greatly between all, but the federal benefits were much better than all the rest.… Even though the impact of office politics (often corrupt) has negatively affected my pay and benefits, I am still getting a fairly good deal compared with the private sector.
  • If you are in it strictly for the money or benefits or whatever, the federal government is not for you. I am a 35-year employee, and I go to work every day to make a contribution and serve the American people. The salary is good (I am middle management) and the benefits are good, and I am grateful during this awful time when people are losing their jobs. But government employees also put up with a lot.


BOX #1

The rise of the goverati

Columnist Mark Drapeau recently wrote about a new class of experts in the federal information technology community: the goverati. Drapeau coined the term to describe people who are leading the charge to use social-networking technology to make government more collaborative.

Two readers spoke up.

  • The term "goverati" has sort of an elitist feel to me, but maybe that's just me. I highly agree with this statement: "They want to network with one another to foster an increasingly transparent, participatory and collaborative government." Those of us using social networks to advance positive culture change in government have a lot of work to do. Thanks for highlighting these efforts!
  • I agree with this comment but feel like it’s refreshing and hopeful that it’s cool to be part of the government again. I'm not sure I'm a [member of the] goverati, but I'm getting increasingly drawn into the surge of activity here and hope that I can contribute along with the many motivated, innovative folks I've met who are running forward.


BOX 2:

Old feds hope for best in show

Last month, Judy Welles wrote a column arguing that longtime federal employees still have a lot to offer their co-workers — most of all, experience.

"Think of Stump, the Sussex spaniel who recently won best in show at the Westminster Kennel Club dog show," she wrote. "Stump is 10 years old, not exactly youthful for a dog. But you could see his confidence and his calm and steady gait."

Her column elicited these comments.

* I agree 100 percent! We old dogs can still lead the pack. You brought up one particular sore point with me, wiki. It's a good source of information, as long as you don't use it for anything important! I always get these young Turks putting information that they have pulled from a wiki in official documents. Not surprisingly, a lot of it is pure garbage, written by individuals who really do not have a clue as to what they are talking about. You can also see spelling, punctuation and general writing errors in wiki documents [that are] indicative of the education level of the writer. It's a kind of Ebonics of erroneous information for the Web.

* Stump didn't learn any new tricks because the show is the same as it was five years ago. The government can't operate that way. This is not to say that the old dogs can't do new tricks. It means that us older [feds] must be willing to change and work to make the change successful using our experience to help, not hinder. Prancing around, obeying orders and looking good [aren’t] enough.

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Reader comments

Wed, Mar 18, 2009 Tom Fairfax

What annoys me is that Obama wants competition - yet Congress (through earmarks) keeps directing us to use their pet contractors. How about competition on earmarks?

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