Acquisition: Bridging the communication gaps

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Is progress being made in bridging the gap between the contracting community and the program community? Is the Office of Management and Budget’s Mythbusters campaign having an impact on the government’s communications with industry? To explore those and other questions related to the federal acquisition workforce, the Procurement Round Table, a nonprofit organization of former senior leaders in federal acquisition, convened an informal discussion with executives from multiple agencies. In a previous column, we reported on challenges in the work environment. Here, we want to share some of the comments about the relationships between contracting officers and the program managers they support and between government and industry.

The people sitting at the intersection of the contracting world and the program world are the contracting officer’s representatives (CORs). They have the critical role of serving as liaison between contracting officers and contractors, which is central to good contract management.

However, the consensus among senior acquisition professionals was that not much progress has been made in elevating the importance of the COR’s role, or in ensuring that individuals who take it on are well trained. As one executive said, “People become CORs because somebody has to do it. No one is hired to be a COR. It is considered a collateral duty and [treated as] a nuisance.”

Just as troubling were the communication gaps we heard about. One participant said: “There is not enough communication between the COR and the [contracting officer]. CORs do not view themselves as an integral part of the contract management portion of the contract.” These problems have been exacerbated in wartime. Another executive noted: “In Iraq and Afghanistan, there were 170,000 contractors. CORs were tapped on the shoulder, took the two-week course online and then were ‘experts.’”

Industry loves the Mythbusters campaign, but there is a very real question about how much the government side is changing its behavior.

By failing to train CORs and recognize the importance of their work, government and industry run the risk of not being appropriately aligned to achieve mission outcomes. Furthermore, errors can occur in basic contract management functions.

Demonstrating that change can happen, one agency executive reported on progress in improving communication between contracting personnel and the program offices they serve, which occurred as a result of dedicated leadership from acquisition executives and strong support from other senior agency officials. However, the overall picture was one of only marginal improvement in that area.

Regarding communication between government and industry, the picture was no better. The purpose of OMB’s Mythbusters campaign is to help government officials understand that the rules do not prohibit meaningful communication with industry and that programs will have better outcomes if all parties communicate early and often. But when we asked if the campaign was making a difference, we heard skepticism.

“Industry loves the Mythbusters campaign, but there is a very real question about how much the government side is changing its behavior.” Virtually all the participants in our discussion indicated approval of the message but made it clear that only limited progress has been made.

One executive voiced the concern that the threat of intense oversight could cause government employees to avoid communication with industry. Another person said adding language to the Federal Acquisition Regulation could help integrate Mythbusters into the daily procurement process. However, the risk/reward equation does not appear to have tilted enough to encourage federal acquisition employees to increase their communication with industry.

In sum, although some progress has been made, much work remains if we are to change the culture of communication both within the government and between the government and industry.


About the Authors

Anne Reed is founder of Anne Reed Consulting and former CIO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dan Gordon is associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University Law School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Al Burman is chairman of the Procurement Round Table, president of Jefferson Solutions and former administrator of OFPP.

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Reader comments

Tue, Nov 6, 2012 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

This just shows the failures if procurement leadership at setting the direction for changing their respective organizations. In these times of austere budgets, the need to reduce contracts, and really find innovative ways to save money without sacrificing quality or performance, communications between industry and government are needed now more than ever. Discussions between government and industry should focus on realistic and affordable requirements as early in the procurement process as necessary, but that message is being thwarted by government legal counsel who claim it is unethical or improper, and institutional resistance to change and risk aversion. I often integrate the "MythBusters" campaign and lessons into the acquisition and program management students I teach, but the blank stares or the "we can't do that" comments are discouraging to say the least.

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