Spread this around: Fresh ideas from the front lines of contracting

Steve Kelman and a group of contracting official present a number of ideas that could be used elsewhere in the government.

I had a very fruitful and — dare I say — inspiring informal meeting with a group of contracting professionals at an agency today. I say inspiring because the group, ranging from new hires to some seasoned managers, was quite engaged in the mission of improving the value contracting delivers to government missions, including the current imperative of contributing to deficit reduction. I put “Spread this around” in the header of this post because I think they presented a number of ideas that could be used elsewhere in the government.

One of the themes that came up during the discussion was frustration with technical folks who were good at what they do technically but had poor writing skills and a poor ability to express a requirement in words (or, when need be, in formulas). One contracting professional described patient efforts to sit down with such people and walk them slowly through the effort. It turned out, however, that in this organization, two people who had had experience on the engineering and contracting sides of the house had volunteered for assignments where their full-time job was to serve as a support to program/contracting teams in helping to get technical requirements in good shape.

That kind of billet probably would have been impossible a few years ago, given how short-handed contracting staffs were. But it might be possible now because the government has invested in hiring some additional contracting people. I hope the agency will do something informally, or somewhat formally, to track the impact of getting that assistance on the quality of performance and the costs of contracts that have received such help.

It was interesting that when I asked the group how they would use an additional person assigned to contract management for their most important service contract, the most senior manager at the meeting said he wouldn't use the person for post-award management at all but instead for developing better requirements before the contract went out for bid.

Another topic we talked about was the interpersonal challenges of the relationship between program and contracting professionals. The contracting folks often believe they are making suggestions for improving the government/contractor business relationship, while program people sometimes see contracting professionals as bureaucrats obsessed with the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

The challenge is how to encourage the program person to see the contracting person as somebody who is genuinely trying to make the contract work better and not just — as program people often grudgingly acknowledge as the contracting person's only role — to "keep me out of jail." That challenge is particularly great when — as is often the case these days given the number of new contracting hires — there is a big age difference between the contracting and the program person.

One of the young contracting professionals discussed how she tries to navigate those kinds of issues. She said she presents herself as a young person who wants to learn how the program and its technology work, almost like a niece or other younger relative of the program person. Most people like to explain what they do and help young people who are just starting out.

She said that, as a result of those requests, she achieved two goals: She learned more about the program, which allowed her to better support the program as a business adviser, and she created greater trust, which made the program person more inclined to accept — or at least listen to — her advice.

I am guessing this articulate young woman, who made a number of other interesting comments in the meeting, is going to go far. The agency is lucky to have her — and lucky to have a lot of the people participating in our meeting.