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By Steve Kelman

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A plea: How can we get more resources and talent for post-award contract management?

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Within the area of public management, procurement is something of a neglected stepchild -- especially considering the amount of money spent and the significance of contracting for accomplishing the government's work. And post-award contract management is a stepchild of a stepchild, getting scant attention even from people engaged in contracting.

Yet the ultimate success or failure of a contracting effort is very dependent on how well the government manages the contract after it is awarded. Most contracting failures are significantly failures of contract management. In its annual 2015 annual report on the Performance of the Defense Acquisition System, the Department of Defense, citing a 2014 report by the Institute for Defense Analysis, noted that weapons systems "started during the reforms of the mid-1990s -- which encouraged a more 'hands off' and 'let industry do its job' approach and included a significant downsizing of the DoD acquisition workforce -- produced significantly higher funding cost growth than other regimes."

De-emphasizing contract management, in other words, seems to have hurt performance. (Mea culpa: This downsizing took place while I was in government and, though I was not personally involved in it, it was driven by colleagues in DOD with whom I closely worked. It now appears that the "hands off" approach, which was well intentioned, in hindsight went too far.)

Starting a few months ago, I decided to see if something could be done to get the issue of improving post-award contract management more attention. In my first blog on this topic, my only concrete suggestion was one I knew would be controversial -- that the government might need to hire more in-house IT "doers" to improve the government's subject matter expertise for managing contracts.

In this blog, I am returning to this issue, as earlier promised. I want to put a few possible specific initiatives out for discussion to improve the government's access to skills it is very short of, namely subject-matter expertise (e.g., in IT) and contract management skills such as negotiating contract modifications and evaluating contractor deliverables. It is surprising how little any of the areas I mention below (perhaps with the exception of the first) is discussed or written about. In none of these cases, in fact, do I feel I know enough at this point to actually recommend the approaches I will outline.

(1) 18F and the U.S. Digital Service. Both of these represent approaches towards improving IT subject matter expertise in government through short-term access to talented people who are unlikely to work tor the government permanently or even for a very extended length of time. (For blog readers outside the federal IT community, 18F, named after the address of the General Services Administration headquarters at 1800 F Street in Washington, and USDS, which is run out of the Office of Management and Budget, are both efforts to bring smart young techies, including from Silicon Valley, into government.) They are an example of a very good general idea I have long recommended -- because young people do not see themselves as staying with one employer for life the way most of their parents did, we should encourage and make it easier for young people to do short-term gigs.

This approach in theory is an excellent one, which could be expanded to make a bigger dent in SME expertise (18F is already planning to hire more folks). My impression of the practice, however, is that views in the federal IT community about how well 18F and USDS are working are mixed. Critics worry about 18F/USDS folks being arrogant towards existing agency IT staff, including CIOs, and being too political and publicity-eager. There is a substantive worry that their skills may be too limited to digital design and not involve other knowledge necessary to help agencies with legacy systems. My quick view is that 18F and USDS are good enough ideas that it is worth investing resources from both ends to reduce the cultural conflicts and make relationships more collaborative, as well as seeing if it's possible to recruit a wider skillset.

(2) IV&V contracting. IV&V stands for "independent verification and validation." IV&V contracts are ones that, at a minimum, hire an outside organization to do a final check of the functionality of newly developed software, and may give the IV&V contractor other tasks as well. This is a very low-visibility corner of IT contracting.

Doing a word search on FCW.com, I found only one article in the last 10 years that dealt substantively with IV&V, the others mostly listed vendors who had won various IV&V contracts. That one exception involved a 2011 GAO report on DHS IT contracting that noted DHS had no policies for when IV&V contracts should be awarded and "were unaware of the extent to which [IV&V was] being used on major IT acquisition programs, associated expenditures, or if those expenditures are producing satisfactory results." How successful is this kind of contracting in helping the government? Should government be looking to use it more, or to apply it to a wider array of contract management activities?

(3) Personal services contracting. Part 37.104 of the Federal Acquisition Regulation prohibits "personal services contracting" without specific statutory authorization -- defined as situations where an individual from outside the organization is under more or less constant supervision and direction from a government manager, so they become like an employee.

There are legitimate arguments against personal services contracting (the official explanation is that an employee must be hired using the civil service system, not through contracting), but I think that the disapprobrium at this point may reflect ancient and now-unexamined tradition as much as anything. In 2007, the Acquisition Advisory Panel on service contracting recommended a statutory elimination of the bar on personal services contracting, but nothing ever came of this. One possibility would be to have a specific statutory exemption for personal services contracting for contract management, perhaps limited to IT.

My remarks on all these three ideas may make me sound more committed to them than I am. In all three cases, as I noted above, I actually don't know enough to have an opinion. Nor do I want to limit the alternatives to these three.

That's why I really want to get a dialogue going, involving government program and contracting folks, contractors, independent experts such at the Procurement Roundtable, or those providing advice to government on good contracting, such as ASI Government and Censeo, and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. The idea would be to learn more so that we as a community can figure out how best to improve post-award contract management. There is a lot of money at stake in managing contracts well, or poorly. We cannot afford to do nothing.

I invite blog readers to comment on this blog or to write independently in other outlets about the subject of improving contract management. If there is anybody who has improvement ideas that you would like me to discuss in a subsequent post, contact me at steve_kelman@hks.harvard.edu.

Let's try to make some progress here!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 11, 2016 at 11:40 AM


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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 2, 2016 Jaime Gracia Washington, D.C.

Leadership is a serious problem that GAO has mentioned for over 25 years. We can't fix the tactical execution until we have leaders that recognize the problem, and can also do something about it.

Wed, Jan 20, 2016

Prof. Kelman: You seem unreasonably buoyed by the comments, and I sense this is like Little League--everyone gets a trophy. There is story enough policy and clear enough regs and procedures on the books. Actually, there is too much, so it is hard to find the strong backbone of intent. The fact is, the many absent, under-performing, or, in some minor fraction, incompetent CORs suffer no consequences for shoddy performance. Time to can their bosses and some of the CORs. Reorient and retrain only those that give a s***, which most don't. That is why this is such a mess. Re personal services contracting, most of what goes on in the butts-in-seats world is in fact, personal services. Way back when I was taught about this third rail, I was told you know it when you see it, e.g., feds actually directing contractors. It's optical sensing, not some abstruse admin and legal knot to identify and un-knot. Much of industry is built on the ability to do exactly what feds do. Why waste time in solving this equation; everybody does it. Most agencies and feds like it. Overall. the prescriptions for action in your post would have been justified 30 years ago. Precious little has happened on this front. There is nothing to celebrate or inaugurate.

Fri, Jan 15, 2016 Steve Kelman

Don't know where to begin to comment on all these really amazing posts. Thanks for joining the dialogue. Tim Cooke, was not aware ASI Government had put out material in the last year on contract administration. Agree with Marchetta Gillespie that some templates/procedures to guide contract administration would be helpful. Neal, any blog readers have thoughts about who does this well? -- would also like to hear. My impression is that, for all their faults, DoD weapons system people do this less badly than others. Agree with Raj Sharma that one example of weak contract management is not really scrutinizing option exercises. Ralph Nash, the doyen of contract law experts, and Dee Lee, former OFPP Administrator, thanks for posting. The IBM Center for the Business of Government is considering an event to discuss this. Nike Wakeman has also weighed in in an op-ed in Washington Technology. Let's keep the conversation going.

Fri, Jan 15, 2016 Tim Cooke

Steve, Please count ASI Government in for the contract management dialogue! In fact, in a case of great minds thinking alike, beginning just last year, we reinvigorated our longstanding focus on improving contract management with two webinars and three publications devoted specifically to up-to-date best practices in the area. You and other readers can find them all here: https://www.asigovernment.com/ideas-insights/post-award-contract-administration-toolkit/ As you know, ASI has been providing best practices, tools, templates, advice, instruction and insights on contract administration since the company was created 20 years ago this year. Our focus always has been on acquisition as a team sport, involving not just contracting staff, but also the program staff seeking to buy capability, services and goods, as well as the finance, IT, legal, audit and other teams involved in the cradle-to-close-out procurement lifecycle. As Ralph Nash points out, CORs, the program’s representatives in monitoring contractor performance and contract administration, carry a big load as a primarily a collateral duty and only recently have begun receiving any specialized training at all. We’ve devoted an entire special section of our online Virtual Acquisition Office to a COR (contracting officer’s representative) Toolkit where VAO subscribers can view 50 quick reference guides on topics related to contract management. We also run quarterly webinars focused specifically on the needs of CORs. In our consulting engagements, ASI always emphasizes the benefits of establishing true partnerships with contractors throughout the entire acquisition lifecycle. We do this to help our federal clients ensure they and their suppliers share objectives; agree on the route to innovative, effective and efficient delivery; and set a positive tone and method for interacting. As you an others have observed, program managers--the customers of the procurement process--also are short on expertise and training in driving contract performance. Here, too, ASI’s VAO helps with advisories, templates and checklists focused on performance-based acquisition (PBA). As the government’s partner in creating the “Seven Steps to Performance-Based Acquisition,” we focus especially on how to establish contractor performance relationships that have meaningful, effective objectives that are monitored and measured. ASI program management consulting is infused with PBA ideals as well, enabling us to support agencies in building collaboration between programs and procurement offices. We look forward to continuing the dialogue on improving contract management, Steve, and thank you for renewing it!

Thu, Jan 14, 2016 Dee Lee

Steve: All three areas are ripe for further exploration. Having just retired from industry -- I'd also like to see more discussion on the "cost" - time, dollars and results of extended complex source selection process. How can we find a more efficient way to make important decisions without spending a year plus and then resorting to LPTA? Look forward to joining the dialogue!

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