What acquisition officials can learn from 'Real Housewives'

The relationships between agencies and contractors can be as delicate as those on television.

Reality TV shows provide ample evidence that relationships can fall apart very quickly because of a single ill-considered remark. A battle erupts. One person defends the remark, the other person lashes out in anger. It’s brutal to watch.

The relationships between agencies and contractors can be as delicate as those on TV.

Consider the case of a federal contracting officer, program manager or contracting officer’s representative giving a company a negative performance review. Friction can easily develop if the facts of the situation are open to interpretation or if the two parties have different views about what happened.

A recently introduced bill could change those dynamics, but not necessarily for the better.

The Comprehensive Contingency Contracting Reform Act (S. 2139), which Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) introduced in February, would revise language in the Federal Acquisition Regulation that requires agencies to provide contractors with copies of performance evaluations and give them 30 days to comment, provide additional information or rebut an official's assessment before it is considered final.

Under a provision of the new bill, agencies would not be required to share performance evaluations with contractors ahead of time. The bill, which is focused on wartime-related contracting, is intended to make it easier for agencies to identify and suspend poorly performing contractors. Although other provisions apply only to wartime contracting, this one would be instituted across the board.

Vendors and acquisition experts say silencing contractors in that way would damage relations between government and industry, creating distrust and leading to more litigation. Given no opportunity to review performance evaluations before they are finalized, contractors are likely to take some tough protective action.

“If a contractor’s remedy to correct the record is taken away from them, there is no safety valve for them other than the courts,” said Peter Tuttle, a former Army contracting officer and now vice president of Distributed Solutions, a consulting company.

Companies must be able to guard themselves against errors, unexpected bombshells and bias in past-performance reviews. “A contractor needs the right to defend itself from either baseless attacks or misinformation that is often a surprise or should have never been a negative rating in the first place,” said Jaime Gracia, president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting. Such inaccurate reviews happen all too often, he added.

However, acquisition experts say the evaluation process is only one aspect of the agency/contractor relationship. Just as in personal interactions, conflicts are more likely to develop if a relationship is already weak.

“I think someone who believes the past-performance review is the basis for a trusting relationship is putting up smoke and mirrors,” said Elaine Duke, former undersecretary for management at the Homeland Security Department and now president of consulting firm Elaine Duke and Associates.

Tips for avoiding a breakup

Duke offered some pointers for industry and agency officials. First of all, the two sides should be talking constantly throughout the contractual relationship to share feedback about expectations and results. That becomes even more important as the contract work progresses, especially when there are personnel changes among managers or contracting officers.

“Contract management should be a daily occurrence,” Duke said.

Government officials must tell the contractor right away if they aren’t pleased with the work. By the same token, a company must identify problems early and work them out with agency officials before they get out of hand. “Shame on you if you don’t,” Duke said.

Whether or not they have the opportunity to defend their comments, agency officials must take the time to prepare accurate performance reviews. They should take detailed notes for their contract files so they have proof of poor performance. According to Duke, officials will have trouble writing a solid review without such documentation.

Furthermore, federal employees need support from higher-level managers. Their bosses must stand up for them, even when they give a company a bad review.

In the end, Duke said a negative past-performance review should not be the cause of a breakup. As with any relationship, both sides must be fully engaged.

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