Want program staff more involved in contracting? Make their jobs more interesting

Blogger Steve Kelman proposes a way to strengthen the role of the contracting officer's technical representative in the procurement process.

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In a recent conversation, Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, told me that one of his priorities is improving the role of the contracting officer’s technical representative in the procurement process.

The COTR is a program official who is supposed to know something about contracting and the program, and thus plays a crucial role in contract management. The problem is that this is often considered a very unattractive, bureaucratic job, rather than an exciting management opportunity that puts a person at the front lines of managing complex cross- and intra-organizational relationships -- just the kind of management that increasingly characterizes the twenty-first century.

One reason this job is seen as so unattractive is that an important part of it has been approving contractor payment vouchers – certifying that the work has been done and that, if the contractor is billing for labor hours, the contractor employees have been present and accounted for. This is boring, bureaucratic work, although of course it needs to be done.

I have a suggestion for reforming voucher processing that I would like to get out there for discussion within the contracting community. I am not wedded to it, and it may be a crazy idea, but I’ve tried it out on a few contracting and program officials attending an executive education class at Harvard, and they sort of liked it, so I’m willing to go public with it.

I suggest we eliminate the responsibility for COTR’s to approve contractor hours worked. Instead, the COTR’s responsibility would only be to certify that the work being billed was accomplished. Then, in addition, every time they filled in a voucher, they would be given, on the voucher, a really quick, one-sentence survey: “How satisfied were you with the quality of the contractor’s work?” They would tick either excellent, good, fair, or just marginally acceptable. (Presumably if the work were unacceptable, the contractor wouldn’t be paid.)

We still of course need controls to check hours worked. Contractors are already required by Defense Contract Management Agency and/or the Defense Contract Audit Agency (for contracts under the jurisdiction of these agencies) to have systems in place for accurate time and attendance. In other cases, we need to ask ourselves whether there are ways for somebody else besides the COTR to do what the COTR is now supposed to do (I say “supposed to” because I suspect for many, this approval activity is pro forma at best).

Could a random sample of invoices be closely reviewed for accuracy, by a designated lower-level government employee other than the COTR? Could there actually be an employee who walks around and checks on contractor personnel? I’m not sure of a solution here, and I suspect this could involve several options, rather than one-size-fits-all. However, I think it’s worth trying, for the sake of making these COTR jobs more appealing.

My proposal has another virtue – the simple customer satisfaction survey does three things. It gives the COTR more meaningful work. It sends a signal about ongoing attention to the quality of contractor performance. And it provides ongoing, real-time past performance feedback to contractors, that could actually be incorporated into past performance report cards, and make those more meaningful as well.

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