Buy Lines: Connect performance measures with an agency's mission

Bob Dickson

The first guiding principle of the Federal Acquisition System is to satisfy the customer in terms of cost, quality and timeliness of the delivered product or service -- a great principle, even if measuring the results is sometimes easier in concept than in execution.

Nevertheless, there are solid steps that government and industry can take to improve performance measurement and increase the likelihood of success.

Performance measurement starts with open communication and partnership. One of the legacies of acquisition reform is improved communications between government and industry. This is particularly true concerning performance-based acquisitions with ample opportunity for market research, due diligence and contractor proposed solutions and metrics.

However, even in a more traditional acquisition environment, effective measurement begins with a shared sense of objectives, metrics, incentives and a process for managing performance.

Respective leaders of the government and industry teams need to ensure that team members have read the contract provisions, understand what is to happen, when and at what cost. And to guarantee meaningful measurement throughout the life of the program, a contract performance improvement working group can be an effective tool.

Measuring the right thing sounds easy enough, but how many of us have heard stories of the help-desk response metric "always answered by the third ring," although no assistance was provided? There are better ways to measure, and they are almost always directly linked to the customer and services supporting the core mission.

If a measure focuses on an outcome linked to the enabling technology rather than the agency mission, it needs to be carefully evaluated. All too often the parties concentrate on what has been traditionally measured or what is readily measurable. This is particularly true in a technical universe filled with data that is measurable but of no particular consequence to the agency mission.

One myth about performance measurement is that somehow more metrics equal better metrics. As a result, we often see unnecessarily elaborate measurement criteria and tracking systems for hundreds of indicators. On close examination, we often find many of these can be replaced by fewer but more elegant standards.

Government program managers and contracting officers must recognize that industry can be invaluable in helping identify the right questions to ask about metrics. For instance, industry usually has a much better understanding of the trade-offs between quality and price at various levels of service. Agencies seeking to understand time, performance and cost impact of their decisions involving such trade-offs should seek industry input.

On more complex acquisitions, the performance evaluation criteria regularly involve the traditional technical, cost, schedule and quality areas. However, they also regularly measure performance through customer survey tools.

Agencies must ensure that for major programs, the survey instruments are professionally prepared, contain specifics and avoid "feel good" criteria, which are difficult to measure. Instead, regular Web-based surveys with highly focused but relatively few questions can be most effective. Ideally, these surveys should be independent and regularly conducted, while involving a truly representative percentage of the customer population.

Both government and industry should view metrics as part of a living process, subject to continuous refreshment and refinement along the way. The metrics related to a brilliant technical approach may be state of the art at the time of contract award, but yesterday's news a year or two later.

In many ways, it comes down to this: Measure the right things, use the right tools and keep checking to ensure you have it right. *

Bob Dickson is vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., Chantilly, Va. His e-mail address is bdickson@acqsolinc.com.

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