Mismanaging managers

Commentary: As long as we don't recognize that contract managers are managers, it will be hard to attract high-flyers to those jobs

Mark Forman, associate director for information technology and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, has been eloquent on the government's need to improve its skill base and attitude toward IT program management. He has noted that one of the real constraints in moving e-government forward is a lack of such skills.

More broadly, there is a shortage of people with those skills to staff major IT efforts such as business systems modernization at the Internal Revenue Service and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection. And, beyond those big, high-visibility programs, hundreds of smaller programs are now being managed by contracting officers' technical representatives.

Many of those people, often called COTRs or CORs, were given their jobs either as a punishment or because they were away from the office the day the assignment was made. Generally, they would rather be doing something else.

The fundamental problem is that most jobs requiring responsibility for successful contract management with IT vendors are not jobs the most talented people would want.

It starts with the title many of them are given — contracting officers' technical representative. This is a bloodless, bureaucratic phrase that gives no sense of mission or excitement. But, even more importantly, it raises status issues between procurement and program people that are distracting and destructive.

The problem continues with the job description, particularly for lower-dollar programs that are heavily focused on administrative tasks, such as checking contractor invoices. Those jobs are where people seek to create the impression they're doing something useful through counterproductive micromanagement of how the vendor is doing the work.

It's not just that more federal workers need to understand project management concepts such as work breakdown structures, critical paths and earned value. That is a technical fix to a problem going far deeper. We need to start with a blank sheet of paper.

IT or program people put in charge of managing the relationship with vendors need fundamentally to see themselves in the business of increasing the chances the government will get good performance at reasonable prices.

We need to show we're serious about reinventing program management. We should reclassify these people with a title such as "contract performance manager" to tell them what their job is. Second, in establishing, through the classification system, grade levels and job descriptions, we should see those as "supervisory" jobs, involving in important ways the management of contractor employees.

As long as we don't recognize that contract managers are managers, it will be hard to attract high flyers to those jobs.

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.

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