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By Nick Wakeman

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Nick Wakeman

NFL refs, contracting officers and the breakdown of trust


Like a lot of sports fans, I’ve been following the coverage of the NFL referees strike, especially in light of the controversial call at the end of Seahawks-Packers game Monday night.

The call of a touchdown instead of an interception has been roundly criticized as wrong and proof that the NFL needs to settle the strike and lockout of the regular referees and get the replacement refs off the field.

To hear most critics, the call was atrocious.

But I’ve watched the replay and I’m not so sure. Even if you question the call on the field, it was reviewed and upheld.

It was a close call. A damn close call. And I think the same decision could have been made with the regular refs.

The way commentators and bloggers have attacked the referees, you’d think that the regular refs have an unblemished record of perfection, that they just don’t make mistakes.

But we all know that’s not right.

In fact, the heart of the issue here isn’t about the decision. It’s about trust.

Any tough, close call by the replacement refs is immediately suspect because they are, well, replacements. They don’t have the relationships, the experience and the respect of the players and coaches on the field.

The whole brouhaha has me thinking about the contracting and procurement officials managing government purchasing and the contentious relationship between industry and government.

An organizational psychologist might explain the inner workings of the phenomenon better than I could, but I think we are experiencing a breakdown in trust. It might not be as acute or severe as what’s going on in the NFL, but there are similarities.

Any contracting decision that is questionable or risky is susceptible to complaints that the contracting workforce is overworked at best and incompetent at worst.

On the other side of the coin, any mistake by a contractor is used as fodder to characterize companies as privateers who are only interested in making a quick buck.

Neither generalization is true but they are evidence of an erosion of trust. And when trust is at a low level, any hard decision gets more difficult to make and support. It is any wonder that we’ve seen the growth of contract protests?

We are seeing this breakdown in trust played out with each NFL game.

It has become too easy to attack the other side for a tough call that goes against you, instead of admitting, and learning from, mistakes you may have made on the field.

And that applies to government contracting as much as it does the NFL.

The players and coaches think the problems will be solved by settling the labor dispute with the referees. That’s probably true. Controversial calls and mistakes will happen but the league will recover quicker because a lot of trust will have been restored with the return of the regular refs.

As for government contracting, I’m not sure a solution to the trust issue will be as easy.


Posted by Nick Wakeman on Sep 26, 2012 at 9:52 AM

Reader Comments

Thu, Sep 27, 2012 Chuck Viator Washington Metro

Nick - Thank you for the thoughtful piece on TRUST. Albeit, I am not sure the problem doesn't lie with the angry political environment that we see acted out on the Hill on a daily basis - Government workers, contracting, fraud waste and abuse, and contractors seem to political fodder. If the anger does not get "Dialed Back", I personally do not believe this problem goes away.

Thu, Sep 27, 2012 Rob Snyder Ashburn, VA

Over the past twenty five years in the support contractor arena, I have witnessed the steady erosion of trust between the government and industry. Trust is earned and not a natural instinct. We have the relationship eroding before our eyes and the answers that are given to rectify the problem don't necessarily address the problem. They only cure the symptoms. I started as a direct support contractor and moved into business development after ten years of learning how government works. I helped my clients fight for identify needs, fight for budgets, and try to make things work when the money wasn't there. I learned how to interact with my clients and EARNED the trust that was given. Today, we hire BD people that know how to represent a product or service, but don't know how to figure out what the government really needs and then provide a solution. I have heard BD folks talk instead of listen. On the government side, I have watched good CO's and KO's retire and new ones take their place. They are taught the FAR and how to apply it. What they are not told is how to really get a job done, within the rules, in a common sense fashion. They are taught, unfairly, that all government contractors are only out to get the money. Why shouldn't they think this when BD people are more concerned with profits than solutions. We used to rely on organizations like IAC, AFCEA, and numerous other groups to generate trust between the two parties. Now, CO's are too worried about protests or being punished for making decisions to talk openly in these forums. Attend a function at one of these organizations and look at how many of the business cards are from "sales people". I would suggest two answers to the trust problem in our industry. First, there needs to be an education of new CO's in how business works that is taught by business people. Just because a government person has the thread of an idea on a new program doesn't mean that they have to shut down conversations with industry. An RFI period should be open to all ideas and the government needs to open the doors to all that want to talk. On the side of the solution, industry people need to shut up and listen. My friend Steve Cooper once told me at an FAA conference that "when people set up a meeting with him and then open the conversation with 'So what keeps you up at night?' the meeting in his mind is over. Business Development is not a sales function. I look at Sales as a commodity based position. Business Development should be focused on the identification of a problem and the development of a cost effective solution. There is enough information to gather from various sources, like this website, to make informed decisions on what the government is asking for and then providing it regardless of how stockholders react. Between open door policies being implemented by government and smart people in our industry worrying more about solutions and not how they look in a suit, the trust will again be earned.

Thu, Sep 27, 2012 NC

Thanks for the insightful parallel. However, one is a game, the other has far more critical national security ramifications. It likely won't happen until after the elections, but there are some very fractured trust fences to mend ASAP after November 6.

Thu, Sep 27, 2012 Beachman Oakton, VA

Anyone who talks about outrage at an unmade call and uses that weak excuse to hit the replacement refs' competency is inconsistent. How many end-of-game non-calls have been made by the regular refs over decades? In fact, how often have you heard commentators say, "...you know they will NEVER make a game-deciding call to end a game!" But no one ever goes after the refs' heads. Great article, Nick. Spot on.

Thu, Sep 27, 2012 Just some guy

Congratulations--you entirely missed the point of the article.

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