DOD parses the people factor in procurement reform

FCW talked to Shay Assad for a Q&A. Assad has been at the center of acquisition reforms for years and has most recently led the way in encouraging a customer-focused culture in DOD procurement.

Shay Assad, director of defense procurement and acquisition policy at the Defense Department, has been at the center of acquisition reforms for years and has most recently led the way in encouraging a customer-focused culture in DOD procurement.

Under Assad's leadership, DOD has carefully considered the needs of its acquisition workforce and found new ways to address them. He has been particularly involved in helping contracting officer's technical representatives balance their complex workloads, which involve making fair and competitive contract awards and then managing those contracts.

Assad met with reporter Matthew Weigelt to talk about the role of COTRs, how to manage bid protests and what civilian agencies can learn from DOD's experience.

FCW: Contracting officers' technical representatives manage contracts after they're awarded. But those responsibilities are often secondary to their main jobs. How have you helped them balance that workload?

Shay Assad: When we send soldiers and Marines into the battlefield, there are specific individuals who have been designated as COTRs. They are getting trained stateside so they know, in that particular case, their primary role is to act as a COTR for their specific unit.

We’re dealing with this in two ways. One is a lot of the services that are being performed on the battlefield are actually being overseen by [Defense Contract Management Agency officials], who are professionals in looking at this work. And we have also issued a handbook for each of our COTRs.

FCW: How did you go about making it the COTRs' primary work?

Shay Assad: We still, on the civilian side in [the continental United States], have that issue. COTRs have the responsibility for contracting oversight as an ancillary duty. Now that in and of itself is not necessarily a problem. The problem is when you overload COTRs with a multiplicity of contracts that they have to look at as well as do their day-to-day job. Then it becomes problematic. So it really is finding that balance in their workload.

FCW: It puts more responsibility on managers to have a good understanding of what the COTRs are doing so they can spread out the work.

Shay Assad: Absolutely. And frankly, we are trying to educate our contracting officers that, when interviewing an individual, one thing they are talking to them about is their workload to ensure that, in fact, they can appropriately oversee the contract.

Now, that’s changing culture. We are trying to put the appropriate emphasis on overseeing our services contracts, and in the past, I think that hasn’t always been the case.

FCW: The government is pushing for better contract management, knowing the contractors that are out there and making sure agencies are choosing the good performers. How are you making past performance more of a priority?

Shay Assad: Past performance is a requirement of really all of our source selections. People have to examine past performance whether they are doing a determination response, a responsibility determination, or they are doing a formal source selection with past performance in it.

The real key for us is that we need to set this up. I just issued a memo on this that was very blunt, frankly, to the workforce. We are headed toward ensuring that the requirement for submission of past-performance evaluations is really tied to the performance evaluations of our folks who are responsible — that is, contracting officers and program managers.

We are going to be much more direct in terms of putting some guidance out there so our contracting officers and program managers realize that this isn’t just something nice to do. This is a mandatory requirement that we really do need to have in order to make past performance effective.

FCW: DOD rearranged its acquisition workforce by changing its culture. What lessons could you pass along to civilian agencies?

Shay Assad: I think the real key is to take a hard look in the mirror.

You have to know and understand what your capabilities are and understand what the needs of your customers are. You have to ensure that this isn’t just a quantity matter. This is a quality matter, frankly — quality being the breadth and scope of what contracting officers and acquisition professionals need to know.

My advice would be, before you go out hiring folks, you need to have a very good understanding of where you want to be in the end-game in terms of the quality of folks you are hiring and in terms of the skill sets you expect them to have.

FCW: DOD officials have talked about creating a central group to help contracting officers conduct market research. How would that work?

Shay Assad: One of the things that we are looking at is creating within the DCMA a pricing center of excellence. It would include a market research branch. If people are looking for a particular service, these folks would be able to provide them guidance as to how to go about doing that market research.

Right now, we are in the infancy stages of that.

FCW: We are seeing a shift from large-scale weapons system purchasing. How are you going about accomplishing that and encouraging people to think differently about it?

Shay Assad: We need to understand what’s good enough. What’s the requirement, and what systems meet that requirement? We should ensure that we buy what we need [and] not go reaching for the stars when we don’t have to.

I do think that we also need to make sure that [the systems] are open architecture and that we can, in fact, change things within that system easily so that we get a multiplicity of companies that are able to meet our requirements.

I can tell you open-architecture requirements are fundamental. We want to create an environment where we have the flexibility to make changes in the future or increase capability without being tied up with proprietary data systems or restricted software rights.

FCW: How do you address concerns about bid protests by using peer reviews and more advisory panels?

Shay Assad: You really hit the nail on the head. It’s the utilization of peer reviews, the exchange of best practices and, frankly, just being a little bit more deliberate to ensure that our [requests for proposals] are clear, not ambiguous, as to what it is we want to buy.

Second, [by] saying how we are going to evaluate it and then in the execution phase of the source selection, as simple as it may sound, [by] doing what we said.

FCW: You used to be a naval procurement officer. How did you end up in that job, and was procurement a perfect match for you from the start?

Shay Assad: I was an engineering officer first aboard Navy destroyers. Then I transferred to the supply call, which is basically the business aspect — the businessman, if you will, of the Navy.

I was onboard [the] ship looking toward my future, and there was this thing called “acquisition.” I read about it, and it sounded like it might be fun. And believe it or not, from the first day I walked in through the door to today, I’ve loved every minute of being in this profession.

The world of acquisition is a great place to be. It’s very exciting. It gives you insight into all aspects of the entire business cycle and spectrum, and so I’ve loved every minute of being here.

I was very fortunate [that], when I walked through the door, I was mentored by some really terrific Navy contracting professionals named Bob Boardman and John Flaherty. They were very senior guys. The tie happened to be I was a kid from Massachusetts, and they were both from Massachusetts, so they kind of said, “Let’s take this young naval officer under our wing.”

But what it led me to believe — and I’ve tried to hold true to it — is senior professionals really need to...take the time to mentor young folks because eventually those young folks will become the leaders that [the senior professionals] presently are.

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