Mixing business with a procurement law degree

Steve Kelman applauds a new program at GWU -- and offers some suggestions for improving it.

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Many people -- and I count myself as one of them -- have long argued that government contracting professionals should in the first instance provide advice to program customers about the business elements of the contracting relationship. That would require skills such as knowledge of the marketplace for the product or service being bought (to help structure the contracting strategy and request for proposals), negotiating ability, understanding of contractual incentives, team management and performance monitoring. Program managers cannot be expected to have business expertise, and if contracting people don't provide it, it is likely to be absent altogether, creating problems for the government in getting a good deal from contracting.

Those of us who favor that underlying approach cannot fail to be happy that George Washington University has established a master of science degree in government contracting that requires students to take courses from both the GWU School of Business and the university's government procurement law program. I've been taking a closer look at the program, which began to admit students in August 2012, in the context of my nascent effort to develop a course in procurement management at the Kennedy School, a topic I have blogged about recently.

Like many university programs in the Washington area, GWU's is almost exclusively a part-time program of night classes for people who are already working. About 40 percent of participants work in government, with most of the rest in industry, and the average age is 36. The degree requires four semesters' worth of courses. As I think about it, that makes sense because, given the realities of entry-level jobs in government and industry, having a two-year master's degree would probably make the person overeducated for the available jobs. However, it would be nice if more of the participants were three to five years into their careers rather than 10 years.

The program is expected to have 75 enrollees by this fall, which strikes me as a significant number, but because the students take courses at different paces, it is not a cohort the way it would be in a full-time program.

There are no dedicated courses developed especially for the program. Instead, students take courses from the MBA and procurement law programs together with other students in those programs. It's probably a good idea to expose people working in government contracting to a general business school environment rather than a hothouse that is unique to government contracting.

The selection of business school courses the students take is a work in progress. Up until now, students were required to take large swaths of the MBA core curriculum, including courses of questionable relevance to a contracting professional such as "Financial Markets" -- which is about how companies should issue equity and debt, along with options and derivatives -- and "Microeconomics for the World Economy."

The required MBA courses are being cut back from eight to four, with more electives. Students are required to take an MBA course (not in the MBA core curriculum) called "Introduction to Project and Program Management," which is good, but the redesign has unfortunately eliminated the required course in "Organizations and Leadership," which would hopefully provide some training in team management and motivation, both of which are important skills.

No course on negotiations is mentioned in the curriculum materials I have seen, which is also too bad. And it would be nice if the university developed a new course centering on the economics-based research that exists on the make/buy decision, how to design incentives and how to establish performance metrics for contracts, among other topics. I definitely plan to include some of that material in any course I develop.

But the basic thrust of GWU's effort is great. It sends a signal about what contracting professionals should be doing, and it will certainly provide those in the field with concrete skills that will help them do a better job on behalf of the taxpayer.

However, fewer than half of the government participants in the program are receiving any support from their agencies to attend, and virtually none (the program director knows of two students) are being fully supported by their agencies. What if agencies had a competition for the most outstanding young contracting professional -- say, five years of work experience or less -- and fully supported the winner's tuition?

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