The hidden force in acquisition

Changing contracting priorities are elevating the position of the contracting officer’s technical representative.

Some of the most influential people in the federal acquisition community are also the least well known.

They make critical decisions at every step of the acquisition process, yet the Federal Acquisition Regulation does not mention them. Any reform initiative that does not take them into account is bound to fail, yet the Office of Federal Procurement Policy rarely takes note of them in memos.

But that is beginning to change. Slowly but surely, federal agencies are coming to realize that contracting officer’s technical representatives (COTRs) play an essential — if underappreciated — role in government contracting.

Even the Government Accountability Office is trying to get a handle on the community.

“We have no really clear picture of how many of those there are, what their training and skills are, and so forth,” said John Needham, director of acquisition and sourcing management at GAO, during an April 28 congressional hearing on the Defense Department’s acquisition workforce. “That’s one area we saw as a need.”

COTRs serve as a vital link between their better-known colleagues — program managers and contracting officers — and help translate operational requirements into executable and manageable contracts.

“They’re the principal people who bring these worlds together,” said Robert Burton, former deputy administrator at OFPP and now a partner at Venable law firm.

COTRs also keep tabs on how well contractors are meeting their requirements. Agencies have learned the hard way that they cannot hand that task to new employees or pile it on an already overworked acquisition staff.

So as contracting spending rises and the complexity of contracts increases, COTRs have become the linchpin of government contracting.

Performance pressure points

Agencies are finally beginning to appreciate COTRs because agencies are spending much more money on services compared to a decade ago. For example, DOD spent $202 billion through services contracts in 2008, compared to $92 billion 2001.

“There are a lot more moving parts to keep hold of and a lot more contracts to manage today,” said Mary Davie, assistant commissioner of the Office of Assisted Acquisition Services at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service.

Davie took a job as a COTR in 1989, when she was 23 years old. It was a good way to get some on-the-job training, she said. She made sure that products came in on time and in good condition. “They were sort of turning to me for getting what was needed and keeping the project on schedule,” she said.

In recent years, agencies have been under pressure from the White House and Congress to determine whether they are getting their tax dollars’ worth from contracts, said Elizabeth Miller, vice president of Government Horizons, a nonprofit acquisition training organization.

Therefore, they are trying to develop more sophisticated ways to measure contractor performance. Those metrics and disciplines such as earned value management can get complicated when it comes to technical services contracts.

COTRs are responsible for building such metrics into contracts and sounding the alarm when contractors go astray. Communication must happen early and often, Miller said. “It’s not about waiting for the monthly progress report to find out, ‘Oh, we have a problem.’”

Davie said COTRs also explain to contractors what the program managers need and what the contracting language requires of them.

In addition, COTRs must keep in close touch with contracting officers about progress and suggest modifications if things are off kilter, experts say.

“The COTRs go back and forth,” Burton said.

COTRs come of age

With President Barack Obama’s push to put more contracting information online for public consumption, several experts said COTRs’ duties will become more visible, which will force them to manage projects even more carefully.

With billions of stimulus dollars to spend, the increased burden on COTRs worries many inspectors general. They know agencies will have their hands full managing that money, which comes with new demands from the administration to track where the money is going and what it yields.

Numerous IGs have issued reports recently detailing their concerns about their acquisition workforces. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s requirements seem to demand larger acquisition workforces than agencies have. Existing employees are already struggling to manage increasing sums of money and transactions, even without the stimulus funds.

Procurement officials expect that actions associated with the stimulus funding will be complex, requiring more rigor and oversight. That will, in turn, increase the demands on COTRs and other contract specialists, according to a recent report from the Energy Department’s IG.

In today’s environment, COTRs can’t be young people fresh out of college, as they often were in the past, officials say. They must be savvy and experienced experts in their fields who understand both the procurement and program management sides of acquisition.

In recent years, “there was a shifting expectation for a higher level of competence in understanding and collaborating on the ‘how’ versus the ‘what,’” said Chuck Harris, a former Air Force contracting officer and now president and chief executive officer of Inflection Point Solutions, a training and consulting company.

It hasn’t always been that way. DOD, the world’s biggest buyer, has not always filled the slots for contracting officer’s representatives -- DOD's equivalent to the COTR -- with the best people. It is not uncommon for CORs overseas in war zones to have no training. And generally, all COR training is geared for times when operations are slow, so it is barely adequate when situations get tense, the Senate Armed Services Committee wrote in a report last year.

Assigning a soldier to the role of a COR would seem like a good way to boost someone’s career by providing a launching point into the contracting field. But too often, the soldier who takes on that role doesn’t have any relevant experience, the committee wrote. Then the situation gets worse.

“The COR assignment is often used to send a young soldier to the other side of the base when a commander does not want to have to deal with the person,” the committee wrote.

The Army wants to correct the situation. Officials are spreading the word about CORs’ role in contracting and are teaching Army commanders, staff members and people outside contracting the value of CORs.

“The COR’s role is key to ensuring that the government is getting what it is paying for with appropriate oversight,” Edward Harrington, deputy assistant secretary of the Army for procurement, told a House subcommittee in March.

In April, Jeffery Parsons, executive director of the year-old Army Contracting Command, said an entire division is dedicated to fixing its COR program. And the Army published the “Deployed COR Handbook” to supplement CORs’ training when they’re out in the field.

Sizing up the COTRs

But even as COTRs grow in importance and receive more recognition, officials are still struggling to form a clear picture of the community.

One official called it a mysterious group because agencies and analysts know so little about them. They’re often hidden behind full-time jobs in areas such as information technology or engineering.

In its 2008 report on the acquisition workforce, the Federal Acquisition Institute said it couldn’t identify COTRs because agencies’ records and official guidance about them are so ambiguous. It deferred analysis of COTR demographics until the role is better defined and agencies keep better records.

Officials recognize that the COTR’s role is also growing in importance because the future of government contracting will likely mirror the recovery act rules.

“The program managers rely on them, and the contracting officers rely on them,” Burton said. “They’re really the bridge.”

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