Keep your contracting staff in the loop

Program managers do themselves a favor when they include contracting experts early in the process

Whenever I speak with experienced contracting people about the joys and frustrations of their jobs, high on the list of frustrations is program officers who come to the contracting office with a procurement package that was developed without input from contracting staff. Contracting officers who raise issues or ask for changes are seen as delaying the procurement and/or being bureaucratic.

Some people believe that program managers who are eager to move fast on contracts must have some version of attention deficit disorder. I most definitely do not agree. The procurement system works much faster than it did before the reforms of the 1990s, and that’s a good thing. We want program managers to care about getting their missions accomplished with urgency, and it doesn’t make sense to expect them to tolerate a molasses-like procurement system.

But it does make sense to spend some extra time getting requirements in decent shape. Sure, it is unrealistic and undesirable to expect that initial contract requirements will be written in stone for an entire project. Needs and available technologies change. But performance requirements for the first module of a new information technology system should be well defined in the initial request for proposals.

A solid RFP has manifold benefits: It improves competition, gets the government a better deal, increases the chances for quicker and more successful completion of a project, and reduces the chances for devastating misunderstandings between the government and a vendor after the contract has been awarded. Rushing through the definition of contract requirements is not a good way to show urgency about a program.

When contracting folks raise objections about a procurement package that was developed without their cooperation, sometimes they are merely being bureaucratic, wallowing in Federal Acquisition Regulation provisions or making a power play. But more often than not, they are raising objections because the requirements are too minimalist, confusing or restrictive. Although few contracting officers have the technical knowledge needed to write requirements, many are good at asking questions and having a feel for when a requirements document is well done.

In many cases, the program office throws a procurement document over the fence to the contracting team, which then makes comments and sends it back to the program office for rework. This is a lose-lose proposition, both wasting time and lowering quality.

It wastes time because work gets done more quickly when people work on a document in a group, rather than one party working on the document in isolation and then launching it on a back-and-forth journey with the other party. Sequential processing wastes huge amounts of time with documents just sitting in — real or virtual — inboxes. Studies show that when you have a document that needs several sequential referrals, 90 percent of the time it takes to process the document is inbox time.

The back-and-forth process reduces quality because program staff members tend to get psychologically committed to a document they have developed on their own, which makes them less open to input. Meanwhile, a group effort can take advantage of the ideas and expertise of the contracting folks, which makes for a better document.

So program folks: involve your contracting folks early, in a team effort. Don’t do it just because it will make them feel better and more part of the mission — which it will, and those are good things — but also because it will produce a better procurement and thus better program outcomes.

About the Author

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Connect with him on Twitter: @kelmansteve

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Reader comments

Tue, Apr 20, 2010 Vern Edwards

In his excellent book, Procurement and Public Management: The Fear of Discretion and the Quality of Government Performance (1990), Steve reported his discovery that contracting officers frequently cited "rules" in FAR that do not exist in order to get their way with a program office. That is what I think he meant by "wallowing." In my case, I have found that COs commonly believe in nonexistent rules, such as: Anything you say to one offeror during a source selection you must also say to the other offerors. There is no such rule, but people believe it anyway. Some of those "rules" are harmless, but some lead to inefficiency and needless cost and program delay. The reason that COs believe in such "rules" is that they do not know the regulations. What they know is the word-of-mouth they picked up during OJT, which was passed on to them by people who had learned those things in their own OJT. A responsible tax accountant or tax attorney would not give professional advice to their clients on the basis of such word of mouth, and neither should contracting officers. Once a contracting officer gets the reputation of knowing the rules so well that he or she can find a legal way to do almost anything and will steer a course through the law in a way that advances the objectives of the program office, he or she will not have to ask to be kept in the loop. Such a CO will be a valued advisor, just like a good accountant or attorney. Such a CO will tell the program office: Just tell me your objective and leave it to me to get you there. I'll make it as fast and painless as possible. When such a CO actually delivers on her promises, the program office won't start a meeting without her. it worked for me and it will work for others.

Mon, Apr 19, 2010 Don Mansfield

The notion that a contracting officer is somehow responsible for explaining how a FAR requirement makes good business or programmatic sense to a program manager is absurd. There are many rules in the FAR that do not "help the program", but that still must be followed. The contracting officer is charged with ensuring that acquisitions comply with these rules, not being an advocate for them.

Fri, Apr 16, 2010 Steve Kelman

Vern, by "wallowing" in the FAR I mean telling program folks they need to do something because the FAR says so, rather than explaining a good business or programmatic reason -- that will help the program -- about why something (such as keeping contracting folks in the loop) should be done.

Thu, Apr 15, 2010 Vern Edwards

Steve: COs are legally obligated to enforce the rules. See FAR 1.602-1(b). They can be held personally responsible for not doing so. See John Martino, Comp. Gem. Dec. B-262168, 96-1 CPD ¶ 256; 1996 WL 283964. So what do you mean when you write of "wallowing" in the FAR? Of what, exactly, does wallowing consist? Would you be more specific? Perhaps program officials do not keep their contracting offices in the loop because they do not think that the contracting offices have much to offer besides administrative support. I see an awful lot of contracting personnel in the course of a year, and in my experience most of them do not know or understand the rules very well. That's too bad, because anyone who really knows the rules, who wallows in them, knows that there is very little that cannot be done legally and more quickly than through standard procedures. The rules are actually quite liberal in most respects. Source selections need not be as labor-intensive and time-consuming as they are. They are that way because most COs who conduct source selections learned what little they know through cut-and-paste on-the-job training, instead of study. COs should know the rules inside and out so that they can (1) fulfill their legal obligations to the public and (2) find ways to support the program offices more effectively. In the early years of my career I made it my goal that the program manager would not start a meeting without me. i achieved that goal in part by knowing the rules so well that I almost never had to say no. I could, instead, say: "Boss, give me an hour or so and I'll find a way to get that done and keep your name out of the newspaper." It worked well for me. Yes, I wallow in the rules. That's how I knew that it was permissible to conduct evaluations based on oral presentations instead of written proposals--before you had it added to the FAR. Don't disparage fascination with the rules, Steve, especially not with so many interns hanging around. Instead, encourage knowing the rules inside and out as a way to get things done more quickly and more easily, as a way to find legally supportable shortcuts to success. That way, COs will have more to offer their programs than mere paper pushing. It's pointless to pontificate about keeping contracting offices in the loop. When contracting offices have something worthwhile to offer, they'll be at the center of the loop.

Tue, Apr 13, 2010

I dont disagree. I am in acquisition and unfortunately, my managers REPORT TO program. In essence, as stated above, if acquisition asks a question they are seen as "the problem". You are correct, we are NOT technical, and we are "outsiders". With that said, sometimes the best review is done with an open mind and experience in contracting scenarios, contract law, results, protests and claims. Program and Contracting were designed to work together, as a team, on equal footing and creating a check and balance system. The scales have tipped to Program for unfortunately, we ultimately report to them. We are held to a higher standard than program (procurement integrity), must have a college degree, specialized training (with continuing education) and are being tasked to "sign on the dotted line", hence taking the risk. The Government dosent pay our professional liability insurance for if we do something "wrong" we can be held liable. So yes, we would love to be embraced by the "team" early on, yes, we ask questions and yes, we want a "warm fuzzy feeling".

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