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By Steve Kelman

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Mixing business with a procurement law degree

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Many people -- and I count myself as one of them -- have long argued that government contracting professionals should in the first instance provide advice to program customers about the business elements of the contracting relationship. That would require skills such as knowledge of the marketplace for the product or service being bought (to help structure the contracting strategy and request for proposals), negotiating ability, understanding of contractual incentives, team management and performance monitoring. Program managers cannot be expected to have business expertise, and if contracting people don't provide it, it is likely to be absent altogether, creating problems for the government in getting a good deal from contracting.

Those of us who favor that underlying approach cannot fail to be happy that George Washington University has established a master of science degree in government contracting that requires students to take courses from both the GWU School of Business and the university's government procurement law program. I've been taking a closer look at the program, which began to admit students in August 2012, in the context of my nascent effort to develop a course in procurement management at the Kennedy School, a topic I have blogged about recently.

Like many university programs in the Washington area, GWU's is almost exclusively a part-time program of night classes for people who are already working. About 40 percent of participants work in government, with most of the rest in industry, and the average age is 36. The degree requires four semesters' worth of courses. As I think about it, that makes sense because, given the realities of entry-level jobs in government and industry, having a two-year master's degree would probably make the person overeducated for the available jobs. However, it would be nice if more of the participants were three to five years into their careers rather than 10 years.

The program is expected to have 75 enrollees by this fall, which strikes me as a significant number, but because the students take courses at different paces, it is not a cohort the way it would be in a full-time program.

There are no dedicated courses developed especially for the program. Instead, students take courses from the MBA and procurement law programs together with other students in those programs. It's probably a good idea to expose people working in government contracting to a general business school environment rather than a hothouse that is unique to government contracting.

The selection of business school courses the students take is a work in progress. Up until now, students were required to take large swaths of the MBA core curriculum, including courses of questionable relevance to a contracting professional such as "Financial Markets" -- which is about how companies should issue equity and debt, along with options and derivatives -- and "Microeconomics for the World Economy."

The required MBA courses are being cut back from eight to four, with more electives. Students are required to take an MBA course (not in the MBA core curriculum) called "Introduction to Project and Program Management," which is good, but the redesign has unfortunately eliminated the required course in "Organizations and Leadership," which would hopefully provide some training in team management and motivation, both of which are important skills.

No course on negotiations is mentioned in the curriculum materials I have seen, which is also too bad. And it would be nice if the university developed a new course centering on the economics-based research that exists on the make/buy decision, how to design incentives and how to establish performance metrics for contracts, among other topics. I definitely plan to include some of that material in any course I develop.

But the basic thrust of GWU's effort is great. It sends a signal about what contracting professionals should be doing, and it will certainly provide those in the field with concrete skills that will help them do a better job on behalf of the taxpayer.

However, fewer than half of the government participants in the program are receiving any support from their agencies to attend, and virtually none (the program director knows of two students) are being fully supported by their agencies. What if agencies had a competition for the most outstanding young contracting professional -- say, five years of work experience or less -- and fully supported the winner's tuition?

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 14, 2014 at 1:18 PM

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Reader comments

Sat, May 17, 2014 Brie Mischbuccha National Cap. Area

With a career and a half in the govcon biz I can say confidently that we need a more professional set of government contracting officers and specialists. The good ones are worth their weight in gold. We also need activist and aggressive law enforcers, perhaps in a job series apart from the COs--people who will burrow into mismanagement, corruption, waste and abuse from either the govt or contracted side. These people should be active before the need arises to call the FBI, or even the agency IG. If the CO were so visibly in enforcement, he or she could not function well enough. We also need tools--actually they already exist--to deal with the incompetent and negligent staff of the program offices. CORs and COTRs, and their bosses, have no excuse for weak or negligent oversight or for covering up poor contractor performance. Yet it happens all the time. Look at how the govt and the contractors joined forces to obscure and hide the awful performance of the Federal exchange website. A king's ransom was being paid for the work, but no one blew the whistle. The two sides were too invested in each other. In the end of course, no one but no one got canned, when in fact the govt crew up to a high level (secretary) or the several compromised companies took a proper fall. You can train and educate and give degrees as much as you like, but until people are willing to enforce the regs and laws already on the books, the good education is worth nada. Make sense? Larding careers with more education has not been proven, one way or the other, to make sense. Even tho the employee and education and contractor interests all say it is just grand, eh?

Thu, May 15, 2014 Michael Aisenberg D.C.

As an attorney whose "practice" has involved policy issues around Federal acquisition of IT for much of my career, I think Steve Kelman's arguments for adding academically-rooted skills to the acquisition community are spot-on. There is risk, however, in mixing functions within the existing bureaucratic swim lanes, and in relying on learning delivered only through academic channels. My recent work has been heavily involved with Supply Chain Risk Management, an emerging and often poorly understood emerging sub-discipline that exists at the junction of program definition and requirements setting, acquisition and contracting, testing and acceptance and deployment. The involvement of contracting officers and OGC representatives is frequently part of the process, but also frequently absent. Orthodox Risk Management and PPP doctrine places responsibility for many SCRM steps with the Program Manager, but an agency with little or no maturity in its use of PPP techniques would have difficulty in applying the appropriate analytics to effectively benefit any given acquisition--so WHO does it, and who is TRAINED to do it may be less important than the fact that the SCRM function gets done. Expand this notion more broadly to the entire suite of PPP elements, or to the RMF more broadly, and to agencies beyond the CNSS participants who will benefit from the kind of training presently provided by the relevant courses in the existing NDU curricula, and the value of the kind of program Steve describes is compelling. BUT, it is a mistake, IMO to suggest that this is a "legal" training exercise; rarely do the lawyers see or become involved in the mechanics of routine assessments, or even well constructed PPPs. These tools should be put in the hands of a much broader population of actors in the acquisition community. I would suggest (indeed, through the DoD/DHS/NIST Software Supply Chain Forum have proposed a curriculum) for a two-year degree certificate for IT immersion to train individuals to join acquisition staffs across civilian agencies. Why civilian agencies ? Because of the growing association of their data collection programs with CUI/sensitive data --not classified, but sensitive, targeted subject to exploitation/exfiltration tracks and warranting heightened security measures going right back to specification setting and acquisition, including vendor engagement. Familiarity among acquisition staff with how the products are designed, manufactured built and sold to the government will allow much better management of acquisitions, better execution of PPP elements, and overall risk reduction. Spread the knowledge.

Thu, May 15, 2014 Tiffiny D.C.

I really like the way GOD is thinking. I am in private industry as an Account Executive for an IT Management firm and these skills are imperative to understanding the full scope of how contracting works. Negatiating, understanding the terms, business sense, and interpretation of who you are dealing with from both sides. I would take up that challenge fThis 24 year old LSU grad, who is one year in her career can see the benefits in GWU's thinking, and would definitely take that challenge!

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