Post-award contract management: Trying to figure out what is happening on the ground

Steve Kelman applauds ASI Government for sharing valuable knowledge -- and notes that there are still plenty of other questions to answer.

Complexity (Shutterstock image)

For those who may not have heard of it, ASI Government -- formerly Acquisition Solutions -- is a company formed in 1996 by a number of long-time and well-respected federal contracting officials to consult to agencies about how to improve the value government gets from contracting. (ASI Government has no private-sector clients.)

In response to my recent blogs on improving post-award contract management, ASI officials have public-spiritedly stepped up to the plate -- by making a toolkit of reports they have written on this topic available for free, outside ASI's usual paywall. The collection includes an introductory discussion of post-award contract management; guides to managing contract modifications; and guides to monitoring and evaluating contract performance -- posted six reports and two webinars in all.

ASI Government CEO Tim Cooke announced this in a comment on one of previous blog posts. "In an effort to support the discussion on improving contract management," he wrote, "we've made these resources available to the greater community."

To me, the most useful of the guides is the one on managing contract performance, which is chock full of practical tips. ASI reminds government folks that effective management of contract performance begins with the original solicitation. That document should discuss, for example, what kinds of reports the government will want post-award, as well as the expected tests and evaluation for deliverables. (The guide notes that if the government leaves its requests out of the solicitation and requests them afterwards, the contractor will file for a contract modification and need to be paid.) The guides also discuss the benefits of holding a post-award kickoff conference, and note that the record of the meeting should document areas requiring resolution, along with any controversial matters between the government and the contractor.

So if I now note the limits of what ASI Government has developed, it is not even slightly intended as a criticism. It is really a statement about what I believe to be our collective ignorance as observers of government contracting who are not close enough to what is happening on the ground. The ASI Toolkit is fairly FAR-heavy, with lots of description of formal or legal requirements associated with contract management (who issues a contract modification, what techniques the government may use to monitor performance, etc.). There is almost nothing about much time is assigned to work on post-award contract management, or about what people working on mods from the government's end typically do.

How often do real negotiations take place about what the contractor has proposed? If the mod involves loosening the original contract's performance requirements, how often does the government push back, and what happens then? Ditto on evaluating contractor deliverables. As a community, we really need to know much more than we do about what's actually happening.

There is something of a "nobody is minding the store" view out there about the state of post-award contract management -- particularly, but not exclusively, among those who are skeptical of the degree to which government contracts at all instead of producing things in-house. These critics worry that the government catatonically signs off on contract modifications that contractors propose, and indifferently or not at all evaluates deliverables and performance metrics. But I am pretty sure that the worriers know relatively little about the actual state of things on the ground.

The people who know by far the most about what is actually occurring are the civil servants who are associated with the process -- whether as contracting officers, contracting officer representatives or program managers -- along, of course, with frontline contractors who deal with them. I want to make an appeal to the small but growing band of scholars who work on government contracting, to do research that will help open the kimono. While waiting for that -- such research will not get produced overnight -- I would love to see people, whether on the government or the contractor side, to come forth with accounts of their own experiences and judgments.

As before, I encourage those wanting to join this dialogue to post in the comments section of this blog, or to contact me at steve_kelman@hks.harvard.edu.

Tim Cooke, CEO of ASI Government, is also eager to hear comments and ideas -- he has actually set up a special email address for communications on post-award contract management: cooke.contract.management@asigovt.com. Communications from IT folks who are involved in managing IT contracts post-award are particularly welcome. People should identify themselves as DOD or non-DOD -- my instinct is that for all its problems, the Defense Department is generally better at this than civilian agencies.

And, to repeat, ASI Government has performed a real public service preparing these advisories, and in particular making them available on the web for free. Kudos to them!

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