Taking the pulse of contracting professionals at the Bureau of Prisons

Steve Kelman finds the frustrations and opportunities for improvement are remarkably constant, whether the contract is for high-end IT or improved food services.

documentation

A common theme in contracting experiences both good and bad: Writing an accurate set of requirements, so that the product or service meets the agency's expectations, is tough.

I just had a chance to speak at the annual procurement training meeting of the Bureau of Prisons, the part of the Department of Justice that runs the federal prison system. The overwhelming majority of the contracting officials in the audience reported that they had started their careers as corrections officers, and many of them still have "other duties as assigned" at the prisons at which they work – ranging from being one of those present keeping an eye on prisoners while they eat meals to accompanying foreign prisoners on flights from prisons in their own countries to ones in the United States. How many other contracting officials may be required to carry a weapon as part of their work duties?

After some light remarks about the federal environment currently surrounding such meetings – I asked them how they enjoyed their accommodations, per new agency guidelines, at local homeless shelters – I told them that based on my experience as a teacher, people learn better when they're engaged in the event, including laughter and lighter moments. That runs counter to the new sourpuss, "be sure to have a terrible time" culture of federal conferences. But I promised I wouldn't lead them in any dance videos.

For me the most interesting part of the presentation was at the end, when I got the least experienced (two years or less) and the most experienced (25 years or more) people in the audience to talk about their most rewarding experience from the last few months, their most frustrating experience, and advice they would give one another. There were similar patterns for both groups.

The most rewarding experiences all involved successfully awarding a good contract. One person spoke about a food service contract that had been troubled in the past, but where the award this time went much better. Another spoke about a facilities contract where the government was saving almost 20 percent compared with the last time the contract was bid. A new employee talked about his first experience being in charge of an award "from beginning to end" for a complex piece of equipment, and seeing the award go smoothly, getting a good price and a satisfied customer.

So, one more time: good, meaningful work makes people proud and motivated.

One common theme in these stories – and in the frustrating incidents as well – was problems in getting good statements of requirements for what the government wanted to buy. One of the new contracting professionals spoke of being frustrated when the customer complained about a product that showed up, which met the requirement as written but wasn't what the customer wanted. The person speaking about the previously troubled food service contract noted that the main reason the contract was more successful this time was that the requirement had been stated better.

This theme -- that one of the biggest problems is getting good requirements from customer/users who often find the process unpleasant or even bureaucratic – comes up virtually every time I talk with contracting professionals.

I asked the audience for suggestions about how to deal with this situation, and the common theme was communication. On the improved food service contract, the contracting professional stated that significantly more attention was paid to discussing the requirement than in previous iterations. Somebody mentioned that a benefit of getting industry comments is to surface unclear language in a draft requirement; I suggested that when the government puts out a draft for industry comment, it should specifically ask industry whether there is language that is unclear or ambiguous. Another participant suggested that a priority for the contracting professional's use of time should be to look at the requirement, do market research, and have a dialogue with the user to improve what the requirement asks.

I am reminded of something I frequently said while in government: An important reason to streamline the actual process of contract award is to allow more time and resources for the often under-resourced activities of requirements development/contracting strategy up front, and contract management later on.

The two newbies in the group both also stated that they wanted their supervisors to give them more rather than less freedom and responsibility. And one stressed that supervisors should be open to the idea that new employees may not want to do things exactly as they have been done so far.

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