Kelman: Unsung heroes of contracting

Phil Salmeri understands performance contracting, and he tries to help government folks do the same

At a National Contract Management Association event some time ago, I ran into Phil Salmeri, a contracting officer at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Virginia whom I knew when I worked in government. Salmeri retired in 1995. Since then, he has been training government contracting folks.

I asked him what he was up to lately. He said he has been working with various program offices in the Defense Department on performance-based contracting. When I asked him to tell me about some of his experiences, I heard some interesting stories.

One of the projects Salmeri worked on recently was a river-dredging contract for the Army Corps of Engineers. In the past, the government specified what dredging activities a contractor should undertake. In this case, the first question Salmeri asked was: “Why do you want to dredge the river?” In a manner slightly reminiscent of the joke about why the chicken crossed the road, the reply was: “So boats can go in and out.”

Salmeri followed by asking how they knew whether boats would be able to go in and out. The answer was the river needed to be cleared 100 feet wide by 12 feet deep. Thus was born a performance-based contract for dredging services.

The corps no longer tells contractors how to dredge the river. It uses a Global Positioning System tool to check compliance with the performance requirements. The only difficulty Salmeri had in selling the new approach was that some people worried it might increase contractor profits, which they considered a reason to fret even though it would also cost the government less.

People need to remember that win-win is better than lose-lose.

Salmeri had another story about a communications upgrade at a military base. In the past, the government would provide a wiring diagram for each building and specify what wiring and cabling the contractor would need to install.

Salmeri asked the engineers how they knew what to ask for. They said they started with the capabilities they needed and then developed specifications they believed would meet those requirements.

Salmeri urged the engineers to give the contractors the wiring diagram and the capabilities needed in terms of capacity, speed and ability to upgrade. Then he encouraged them to let the contractors bid based on those requirements.

A larger story emerges from those two stories. The contracting community is understaffed and has many overseers. It is a punching bag for the media and politicians.

Despite all that, many contracting officials strive to improve how they serve their agencies and the public. We don’t hear about them much. They are working below the radar. And they haven’t received enough encouragement.

That needs to change. Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Paul Denett should offer vocal, public support for contracting professionals who try innovative ways to get the best value for the government — even though every innovation may not succeed. Denett should know. He is that kind of contracting professional.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

The Fed 100

Read the profiles of all this year's winners.

Featured

  • Then-presidential candidate Donald Trump at a 2016 campaign event. Image: Shutterstock

    'Buy American' order puts procurement in the spotlight

    Some IT contractors are worried that the "buy American" executive order from President Trump could squeeze key innovators out of the market.

  • OMB chief Mick Mulvaney, shown here in as a member of Congress in 2013. (Photo credit Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

    White House taps old policies for new government makeover

    New guidance from OMB advises agencies to use shared services, GWACs and federal schedules for acquisition, and to leverage IT wherever possible in restructuring plans.

  • Shutterstock image (by Everett Historical): aerial of the Pentagon.

    What DOD's next CIO will have to deal with

    It could be months before the Defense Department has a new CIO, and he or she will face a host of organizational and operational challenges from Day One

  • USAF Gen. John Hyten

    General: Cyber Command needs new platform before NSA split

    U.S. Cyber Command should be elevated to a full combatant command as soon as possible, the head of Strategic Command told Congress, but it cannot be separated from the NSA until it has its own cyber platform.

  • Image from Shutterstock.

    DLA goes virtual

    The Defense Logistics Agency is in the midst of an ambitious campaign to eliminate its IT infrastructure and transition to using exclusively shared, hosted and virtual services.

  • Fed 100 logo

    The 2017 Federal 100

    The women and men who make up this year's Fed 100 are proof positive of what one person can make possibile in federal IT. Read on to learn more about each and every winner's accomplishments.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group