By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Navy's Elliott Branch: Getting a good deal for government.

Every year for the last decade – this is the tenth anniversary – the Partnership for Public Service has given annual awards for outstanding, results-oriented achievements by career civil servants. The award is officially called the “Service to America Medal,” unofficially known as the “Sammies.”

The nickname isn't just a play on the acronym of the formal name or a reference to the Oscars. It also invokes the name of Samuel J. Heyman, the deceased original founder and benefactor of the Partnership for Public Service.

Heyman, in whose honor the awards are given, had an amazing story to tell: a billionaire real estate developer and businessman, he always said his best job ever was as a junior attorney right out of law school for the Department of Justice. He left that job because his father had died, and Heyman took over the family business.

Later in his own too-short life, Heyman decided to give back by founding the Partnership, a non-profit devoted to attracting a new generation of young people to government service and to improving the quality of government management so as to create organizations for which these young people will want to work.  (Full disclosure:  I was recently selected as a participant in SAGE, a Partnership advisory board of former government officials who work to share ideas and give advice/mentorship on government management.)

The Partnership held its award dinner in Washington a few nights ago. These attract a star-studded cast and help make the Sammies at least tied for the most prestigious award given federal officials.

For the first time in several years, a career civil servant contracting professional -- Elliott Branch, currently the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Acquisition and Procurement of the Navy -- won a Sammie. I was thrilled to learn this, because Elliott is one of a handful of long-time, still-in-government outstanding career contracting professionals out there.

The thrust of what he received the award for was also interesting and sends an important signal:  saving the government money through smart contracting. In this budget environment, this traditional element of the contracting culture needs to come (back?) into its own. The award notes the savings he achieved on the Littoral combat ship contract. In the original strategy, the ships were too expensive. Branch oversaw an effort (as I understand it from the supporting material provided) to save money by separating ship construction from support electronics development, allowing a focused head-to-head competition on the ship itself that brought the price down considerably.

Branch has also pushed multiyear contracting, a win-win for the government and the contractor where the government commits (subject to annual appropriations and payment of termination liabilities if future construction is not funded) to a purchase program over several years, allowing the contractor to lower their prices because of the greater certainty about the level of demand that they will get.

In general, Branch is an advocate of having contracting people use negotiation skills, skills that both have a strong potential to help the government (and which contractor representatives are clearly trained in) but that also make the contracting professional’s job more personally and professionally satisfying.

In a video interview in connection with his award, Branch listed several skills a good contracting professional should have, including intellectual curiosity, the ability to think critically, being results-oriented and imagination. Without putting too fine a point on it, he did not include Federal Acquisition Regulation expertise in his list. We need to continue to spread the message that contracting folks of course must know something about the regs, but if that is all they know -- or all they see their jobs as involving -– they are not only never going to win an award but (I guess more importantly) never going to make a difference in creating a better-performing government.

 


 

Posted on Sep 18, 2012 at 12:09 PM


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