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By Steve Kelman

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Talking with a procurement icon about post-award contract management

steve kelman

Deidre (Dee) Lee entered the government in 1978 as a GS-4 contract specialist buying supplies at the U.S. military base in Okinawa. From there she rose up through the ranks, moving to NASA Johnson Space Center in 1984 and becoming the senior procurement official at NASA in 1992 (where I got to know her during my time as Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator).

In 1997 she succeeded me as administrator (she was my choice for the job, and I was happy to see this go to a career civil servant), and from there she went back to the Defense Department in 2000. Dee also worked at the General Services Administration, and ultimately retired from the Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency in 2008.

During her government career, she twice won a Fed 100 award, in 1998 and 2004. Six years ago she went to work for Fluor as chief for government group compliance and operations, a job from which she retired last year. Dee is now working as an independent consultant focusing on government contracting issues.

Dee is blessed with both a lot of smarts and common sense – like me, she loves to illustrate her points with analogies to our buying things for ourselves in our everyday lives, a perspective often missing among FAR-addled contracting folks – and a winning personality to boot. She is an icon, especially among an older generation of federal procurement people.

Hoping to take advantage of her wisdom, I recently reached her at her home in Greenville, S.C., to get her views on post-award contract management. That's a topic that, as many blog readers know, I have been writing about a great deal lately. Dee did not disappoint.

The main question I asked her was the differences in the behavior of government organizations she saw as being in the top 25 percent in terms of post-award management skills versus those in the bottom 25 percent. Her answer was fascinating:

"The key job in contract management is to monitor performance in terms of what the contract is trying to accomplish," she said. "The top 25 percent understand what they've trying to accomplish, and that's what they pay attention to. They look at what really matters, and they evaluate that. The bottom 25 percent track inputs, such as whether you've submitted monthly reports to the government."

"The top 25 percent look at things that really matter, and evaluate that," she continued. "They recognize that It's more important that you deliver the service on time than that you submit reports on time. The bottom 25 percent have no idea whether they're getting a result. So they focus on nits, which are easier to measure but aren't real performance drivers."

Dee added: "For the top 25 percent, if there's an issue, they act – in a timely way! You don't have to get a lawyer on the phone. What's the problem, what are your and our options, what is it going to take? They act like business people. They are not afraid to have a discussion, not afraid to answer a phone call. Government folks need to be attentive, to know what's going on, act on it don't just hope it will get better. Sometimes Industry is hesitant to bring up issues, especially if the government team is going to rate them in past performance as being "difficult to work with."

"Often the origin of the problems for contract management is that the government didn't really know or describe what they wanted in the original RFP," she explained, "so in the contract they measure things that are easy to measure, like submitting a report or measuring the number of Corrective Action Reports. If the contract is poorly written or doesn't solve the mission problem, the bottom 25 percent will just stick to doggedly administering the contract as written."

This observation mirrored a similar one from a contract manager working for industry that I reported in a blog post a few months ago. I noted at the time that this was very different from a common view among outside observers of the mods process suggesting that government typically accepts without any real pushback contractor mod proposals. I would be curious for reactions from blog readers both in government and industry where government reactions to mod requests fit in a Goldilocks scale. Are they more likely to brush off justified changes and insist on an unchanged contract, or too supine in accepting contractor proposals too readily, or just right?

According to Dee, "there is also the reality that often months (if not year plus) pass between proposal submittal and actual contract award. Those government and industry people who then expect to 'perform' to a contract which starts out with an outdated baseline are in for a tough ride. A thorough post-award meeting and proper actions by both parties is essential to a successful start."

Another question I asked her was about what she saw as best practices for the different roles and responsibilities of the program manager, the COR (contracting officer's representative) and the contracting officer. Her answer was straightforward: the program manager should set the expectations the government has for the contractor and should monitor performance, the COR should execute on the program manager's strategy, and the contracting officer should take charge of any necessary post-award negotiations with the contractor.

"A great program manager is there all the time, getting all three groups inside the government aligned and working together," Dee said. "If the contracting officer or COR is out of synch with the program manager, then you have the program manager telling the contractor to do one thing and the COR or contracting officer giving different signal."

It should not be the responsibility of the contractor to "mediate" among the government players, Dee concluded. "It's an awkward position and can lead to further performance challenges, such as the program manager giving direction, the contracting officer disagreeing, and the contractor stuck in the middle -- but most of all the mission not getting completed!"

I would also like to hear blog readers' take on the roles and responsibilities Dee suggested.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 11, 2016 at 5:39 AM


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Reader comments

Tue, Mar 15, 2016 EricE

Tim and Al are spot on, at least in my experience. 90% of the issues I see with procurement today start with a lack of ownership of requirements by the programs. Everyone wants stuff to be bought for them, but no one wants to at least meet procurement half way to figure out the best way to partner up and get what they want. All too often programs want to wait to the last minute, chuck a picture of what they want at the CO and then disappear until (unsurprisingly) exactly what they want doesn't show up, and then the real blamestorming begins (see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30mvly0O6hI ) What is desperately needed in federal acquisitions is an ombusdman that can mediate between the programs and our acquisitions professionals. The vast majority of stuff I seen tossed at contracts has no business getting any where near them until it is a lot more fully developed. Heck the first check should be "is the funding available NOW?"! I'm not in the acquisitions side of things - I just have a lot of sympathy for them. Far too much policy puts the ultimate responsibility for "parenting" on the CO's. I think we can take a page from the FISMA playbook - Executives have to sign off on authorities to operate, but ultimately the technical people below them provide the details. A good chunk of stuff that currently sits with CO's should be owned by the business side of things and the main requirement that CO's should have is to find the signature of the accountable business executive that signs off on their acceptability. If responsibilities were more equitably distributed, we wouldn't have such a procurement backlog!

Tue, Feb 16, 2016 Al

Hello, Tim Cooke. It could be worse. The problems you describe could pre-date even the RFP- the whole project concept could be half-baked and divorced from reality. For example: a perfect acquisition could not fix the affordable care act. Another example: procuring interrogation services correctly would not have changed the outcome of the Iraq War. Nor would procuring logistical services differently.

Fri, Feb 12, 2016 Dave Van Slyke

Thanks Steve for your continued emphasis on this very important topic. Congratulations on your recent award. Dave

Thu, Feb 11, 2016 Tim Cooke

Kudos, Steve, for continuing the contract management dialogue. Getting our acquisition teams to focus on the holy grail--“what the contract is trying to accomplish,” in Dee’s words—is a principled, patriotic pursuit.

And Dee is so right that the problem often originates with a faulty RFP that’s doomed because its writers didn’t know or describe what they were seeking to accomplish. For ASI Government, and for many forward thinking acquisition professionals (a term that includes program, finance, contract and oversight staff in our parlance), a focus on outcomes begins with aligning the team around performance-based acquisition.

You can’t get the right behavior on the backend of a contract if you haven’t got it right on the frontend. If you begin with a statement of work and track adherence to that SOW post award, then you are tracking SOW tasks independent of the outcome you should be producing through the contract.

But if you begin with a statement of outcome-based objectives, then everyone involved in the acquisition will have a clear understanding of the desired outcome to be delivered. That way, contract management consists of tracking progress and milestones toward the outcome, not the progress of tasks. And the team should be measured on successfully achieving the desired outcome.

The true nut of all program management is knowing what outcomes you’re after when seeking support and describing them clearly and in ways that can be measured during delivery. That’s why ASI helped write the “Seven Steps of Performance-Based Acquisition” and why we provide our Virtual Acquisition Office subscribers a knowledge base full of material about performance-based program management.

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