I just read a very strange blog entry by Steven Kelman, former OFPP administrator, writing at Federal Computer Week online on November 20. The title of the entry is: “Improving statements of work to improve contract management.” You can access it at:
I don't ordinarily read Kelman's FCW blog, "The Lectern," but someone sent it to me and I was intrigued by the title of the entry. i thought I might learn something.
Kelman begins by saying he’s been looking for ideas about how to improve contract management and had a conversation with the CEO of a small company whose ideas focused on writing and managing statements of work. She said that in her experience statements of work were often “poor.” Regrettably, she wasn't more specific about what makes them “poor,” because Kelman doesn’t provide any details.
The CEO complained to Kelman that it is often the case that statements of work are written by talented but busy program staff who do not end up working on the contract. Instead, the statement of work is handed over to an unenthusiastic contracting officer’s representative who is not a subject matter expert. Meanwhile, the contracting people are too busy to get involved unless there is a crisis.
The CEO’s specific suggestion? Have contracting officers use the “advisory downselect procedure” (advisory multi-step process) described in FAR 15.202 to reduce the pool of competitors to a “small number of finalists” with which the contracting folk could then work to develop a good statement of work. “[H]aving several contractors work on the joint SOW would guard against rigging the specs in favor of any one contractor’s solution.” The agency would then go on with a source selection.
That’s it. Anyone who has ever written a statement of work for a complex contract and been involved in committee work will understand why I think that would be a project to avoid like a mine field.
Kelman concludes his blog post by asking readers to “join the dialogue” by posting comments or contacting him at his office email address.
Here is my comment:
What is a statement of work? What kind of document is it in a contract for complex services? Is it like a hardware specification? Should it specify the work that the contractor must do, or should it describe the work in general terms and explain how the parties will work together to specify the work on an ad hoc basis over the term of the contract? What makes a statement of work "good"? What is the role of a contract in a complex and dynamic business relationship?
Kelman, who is known for his insistent calls for innovation, doesn’t seem to realize that in order to innovate one has to understand the problem. Kelman and the CEO don't understand statements of work and their role in service quality management.
As OFPP administrator in the 1990s, Kelman did a lot of damage by pushing the half-baked "performance-based contracting" policy, which called for writing "performance work statements" (see the current definition in FAR 2.101) that specify measurable "outcomes" or “results” instead of how-to. The policy was the product of professional ignorance and a failure of professional thought and imagination. Pushing it the way he did wasted precious energy, time, and money without achieving much of anything. I have written a few thousand words in The Nash & Cibinic Report explaining why that policy was dumb.
The problem with service contract management is that the policy people in government and academia who are supposed to be critical thinkers haven’t thought about it long enough and deeply enough. I don't think they read. You cannot specify services like you specify supplies. People like T. P. Hill and Avedis Donabedian wrote enlightening works that provide food for thought about the unique problem of specifying services. Ian R. Mcneil and others have written about the limitations of contract law in complex business relationships. I have cited them in the past.
Ralph Nash and I wrote a comprehensive piece about how to contract for complex services, which was published in the Defense Acquisition Review Journal (Defense ARJ), a publication of the Defense Acquisition University, in September 2007. The piece is entitled, “A Proposal for a New Approach to Performance-Based Services Acquisition.” You can access it here:
In that piece we discuss the reasons for the failure of performance-based contracting in pages 355 – 358. We make specific and detailed recommendations for change in pages 358 - 361.
Apparently, Kelman never read our piece, or read it and forgot about it, or read it and didn’t understand it, or read it and didn’t like it. In any case, it goes into much more detail than he and his CEO friend about the challenges and problems of specifying and managing complex services, and it proposes a much more imaginative scheme of innovation. It calls for a complete rethinking of the rules for the acquisition of complex services.
Why call for suggestions for improving contract management if you won't look at the ones that have been made and critically examine them? If you don't agree with what you read, state your reasons. That's the way to have a dialogue.
Until policy makers and former policy makers get a clue and convince Congress that the current service contracting statutory, regulatory, and policy-memo regime makes no sense at all, service contract management will continue to disappoint. There is a small window of opportunity now with the study panel that Congress has foisted upon DOD. See the FY 2016 NDAA, Sec. 809. I have no hopes or expectations for such panels anymore, but maybe something good could come out of it if somebody who knows something -- and who has done some serious thinking and who still has some patience left for putting up with acquisition reform hoo-rah and nonsense -- would take the matter in hand.