FCW Forum | Ethics

Successful programs require independent management and oversight

Don't let foxes guard the door

President Barack Obama has put a spotlight on accountability and trust, referring in recent speeches to the inadequate oversight of government programs and contracts that too often fail to meet their cost, schedule and performance goals, resulting in poor use of taxpayer dollars and a lack of needed services.

I can think of no better place to begin restoring trust and confidence than in the henhouse.

“The henhouse?” you ask. Yes. Let me explain.

The federal government’s heavy reliance on contracting with the private sector is not a recent trend. As long ago as the first World War, the federal government relied on industry to meet many of the nation’s needs. The challenge that the government faces today is how to effectively manage outsourced programs with an ever-decreasing acquisitions workforce. The answer lies in the management of agency resources. The government has an inherent responsibility to provide oversight of outsourced programs. Oversight support brings the best and brightest from industry inside to assist the government in effectively planning, managing and implementing large, complex and sometimes risky agency programs. But how do agency managers determine which companies are best suited to play this role as the government’s honest broker?

The question might appear simple, but the answer is more complex when one considers that the support expert must be able to provide timely, helpful and unbiased information that will give government executives and program officials the ability to make sound decisions.

To use today’s vernacular, government officials become accountable when the status of a program and performance of its associated contractors are transparent. In many agencies, however, the fox is guarding the henhouse — that is, agencies are allowing contractors to perform oversight and management when the contractors also have a financial interest in the projects they are overseeing. Obviously, there is little hope that a contractor in such a position would provide objective oversight, despite the best intentions.

Government oversight offices, including the Government Accountability Office and agency inspectors general, are looking closely at the contractor community to ensure the government is hiring program and business management support from companies who can demonstrate true and impartial independence. What criteria should the government use in selecting a contractor to assist in managing a program’s cost, schedule and technical performance? I believe there are three key ones.

  • No conflict of interest. Even a hint of impropriety casts a shadow over a support contractor’s legitimacy. Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) developed a reputation by identifying conflicts of interests by contractors who were hired to provide oversight while maintaining contractual arrangements with the same firms whose performance they were overseeing. In a company, contractors are often drawing fine lines between their support of an agency program by one part of their organization and their support of the same or related program by another part. Many large indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contractual vehicles create the potential for these kinds of fine judgments when they allow the same contractor to provide oversight and development support services.

  • Program management as core competency. The government should select support contractors that are experienced and skilled program management practitioners and that are free of contractor biases or political influences. The support expert’s job is to inform the government decision-maker on the true status of his or her program in two ways: its adherence to program management principles and progress toward achieving cost, schedule, and performance goals. The ability to perform this function requires a support contractor that has program management as its core competency and independence as its core value. A support contractor that provides program management as a secondary offering is likely to shape its management guidance in a way that promotes its own products and services as a solution.

  • Performance-based contracting. Performance-based acquisitions are not new. However, applying them to support contractors is, and the government should require and select support contractors willing and able to adhere to specified levels of performance. The government is filled with examples of programs that are behind schedule, over budget or deliver only some of the promised capability. Expert support contractors need to be accountable also — held to standards of performance that align their success to the success of the programs they help manage.

Although there is no silver bullet to fix troubled programs, hiring independent program management support does represent a proven model for increasing program success. Good henhouse management means selecting contractors who can demonstrate tthat they have no conflicts of interest, have program management as a core competency, and embrace performance-based contracting as a method for delivering results.

About the Author

Emory Miller is a former federal employee who was instrumental in establishing the CIO University. He is now a senior vice president for Robbins-Gioia, LLC, a program management consultancy in Alexandria, Va.

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