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By Steve Kelman

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What GS-15s in contracting really think about government acquisition

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While the rest of Washington was preparing for the inauguration, 80 GS-15 feds were headed to Cambridge, Massachusetts, for an intensive four-week executive education program at the Harvard Kennedy School (no picnic, lots of reading and preparing) on management, leadership and policy design. At the beginning of week two, I invited any interested students whose jobs were in contracting to join me for a conversation over lunch. All 10 of those in contracting showed up.

I went around the table and asked each to talk about something that was good about their organization and something that worried them. There were some interesting patterns in their replies.

One theme in discussing what was good about their organization reminded me of the conversations I had a few months ago with industry people at a Coalition for Government Procurement event. I was struck then by how many of the industry people had said that helping agencies with their missions was something that gave them the most satisfaction in their jobs. Perhaps less surprisingly, this was a major theme among the feds. Expressions like “making an impact” and “supporting the warfighter” were used by a number of the participants.

One participant said that what was good about her organization was employees’ “willingness to try” and to “go out of their way to help the soldier.” One of the contracting people in the group had written in her biography for the course that she “believes that while we may make a living with what we get, we mark a life by what we give.” (When I raised this quote at the lunch, one participant said they had seen the quote in a Lockheed Martin ad -- again on the topic of contractors also wanting to serve.)

On the flip side, one said he was extremely distressed about the recent “Fat Leonard” contracting bribery scandal in the Navy, which embarrassed him because it hurt the professional reputation of contracting people.

The most surprising (to me) response about something that was good -- though it came from Defense Department participants only -- was that their organization did a good job training and developing people. “It is much better than in the nineties,” one said. DOD also supported efforts for employees to develop their job skills, another participant said.

On the other hand, another participant was critical of lack of attention giving to training in how to negotiate -- I followed this up with an informal poll of whether people thought contracting folks in their organizations got enough training in negotiating, and only two said yes while five said no.

This surprised me, because my casual impression as an outsider was that the government fell way short in both quantity and quality of training. (I guess evidence for the more positive view is that agencies -- although DOD more so than civilian ones -- are willing to send GS-15s to Harvard for training.) Another participant said that what was good in their agency was their organization’s new efforts to develop metrics based on return on investment.

When we turned to worries, there was a clear pattern there as well. One was an emphasis on quantity in contracting, rather than quality. A number said there were growing pressures to get things done fast. There was also a worry about the proliferation of review and oversight requirements in recent years. “I’d like to go back to the days of FASA and FARA,” one said. (Full disclosure: I was in the government when these laws were passed and worked for their adoption.) “Acquisition reform is broken,” said another. “We are not seeing streamlining.”

The last question I asked the students was whether they would recommend working for government in general, and contracting in particular, to their child. Again, to my real surprise, eight of 10 said they would. (One said they would have recommended government service until Donald Trump became president.)

And all of those would recommend contracting specifically. Given the rumblings out there about a disillusioned and demoralized federal workforce, that was an astounding vote of confidence.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 25, 2017 at 12:08 PM

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Reader comments

Fri, Jan 27, 2017

Re Jan 26 comment. A great idea--and one that has been tried periodically in the last 30 years, including in DoD. Auditors and GCs don't like it. Where it has been done, the COs embedded with their customers have, variously, been: isolated, viewed as spies or just scolds or abominable " 'no' men," who don't want to participate in the scheming/wiring/leaking with the potential sources. It can probably work somewhere, because of individual chemistry and the championship by some appointees, but most of the time it is more trouble than benefit. So, we go back to the check-and-balance, policing role of contracting shops. That surely should work most of the time if the kind of people like the ones who lunched w Professor K actually loosened up a bit and stopped relishing and displaying their power and authority and made their customers feel more like customers. If they really care 100% about the war fighters--who often feel entitled to big program bucks and who sometimes sponsor wasteful, unneeded reqts--the contracting people can close the relationship gap in the standard organizational configuration. All it takes is some forethought, planning, and moving outside their traditional comfort zones.

Thu, Jan 26, 2017

Interesting comments. At one or two levels above these earnest contracting experts, there's a looming realization that the Trump people are, in fact, interested in acquisition. There are more signs than what appears in the press--never all that expert in contracting--that the Trump people know there are many contracts, programs, and business relationships to fix. They are sensing, I think, that the large services firms are not only easier to understand than, say, Boeing's mil aircraft company, and that saving money and winning headlines would be far easier by focusing on services. Think quick hit. Just today, I saw an soon to be sworn in political appointee in a relevant agency learn that Boeing had been the integrator of the $2B "Southern Border Initiative" in Bush term #1. He was amazed that a company like Boeing got the job, failed badly, yet suffered nary a consequence in the marketplace. He was not aware of the tanker fiasco, the criminal prosecutions, etc. But he is now. He was taking on board that past performance is often ignored and that the big companies rarely suffer for their mistakes. One can sense the Trump people would like to change the environment so that money can be saved (and not spent elsewhere) and that the agencies get what they paid for. One can only hope

Thu, Jan 26, 2017

I agree with all the participant comments. However some of these are our own doing - emphasis on quantity over quality, pressure to get things done fast, and increased oversight. Too often contracting people feel their sole domain is inside the procurement office. They wait for the requisition package to arrive before they start work. This means lots of time spent getting to know the requirement, developing an acquisition approach, getting clearances and concurrences like small business offices, and legal. What's needed instead is contracting people who are a part of the programs they support. They sit and help develop strategies, provide advice and assistance, and have intimate understanding on what the program best needs.

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