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The Role of the Contracting Officer

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Vern Edwards


Here are some quotes dating from 1950 about the role of the contracting officer, snipped from various board and court decisions and law reviews:

From: Penner Installation Corp. v. U.S., 116 Ct.Cl. 550 (1950):

Some contracting officers regard themselves as representatives of the [united States], charged with the duty of protecting its interests and of exacting of the contractor everything that may be in the interest of the Government, even though no reasonable basis therefor can be found in the contract documents; but the Supreme Court has said that in settling disputes this is not his function; his function, on the other hand, is to act impartially, weighing with an even hand the rights of the parties on the one hand and on the other.

* * *

It is a duty not easily to be discharged, we know. They are the Government's representatives, charged with the duty of seeing that the Government gets what it bargained for. Many contractors, on the other hand, bent upon making as much money as they can out of the contract, are constantly seeking ways out of doing this and doing that. Frequently, it is a constant battle-the contracting officer as the Government's representative, on the one hand, and the contractor on the other. To ask the contracting officer to act impartially when he must decide a dispute between the contractor and his employer is, indeed, putting upon him a burden difficult to bear. And yet the contract requires him to do so.

From: Perlak, The Military Extraterritorial Jurisdiction Act of 2000: Implications for Contractor Personnel, Military Law Review (September 2001), 169 MILLR 92:

If contractor employees are destined to support the modern battlefield or contingency environment, then the prerogatives of command and the imperatives of mission accomplishment must find their way into the contracting process. The role of the contracting officer in this environment must include the clear realization of commanders' intent, including crafting contracts with sufficient foresight and flexibility to meet that intent. Failing this, the substitution and use of contract support for traditional soldier functions will become a false economy that ultimately may degrade U.S. ability to prosecute wars and enforce peace.

From: Loeb, The Procurement Work Force? The Final Frontier?, Procurement Lawyer (Spring 1998), 33-SPG Procurement Law 18:

Although creation of the contract specialist position by the old Civil Service Commission in 1959 (and its recognition at about the same time in the private sector) did much to upgrade the image of the stodgy purchasing agent, it was only a small beginning. As early as 1955, the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of the Government (the Hoover Commission) was concerned primarily with practices that constrained the contracting officer and recommended strengthening the role of the contracting officer ?in the interest of more expeditious and effective buying.?

From: Ritenberg, Postscript: Mixed Workforce Questions, The Nash & Cibinic Report (November 2006), 20 N&CR ? 54:

At least in theory, there was once a clear line of demarcation between the respective roles of the Contracting Officer and the Program Office. This was expressed in two reports of the General Accounting Office as follows:

During contract performance, program offices are responsible for monitoring the performance of the contractor, providing technical assistance to the contractor that is required for contract performance, and notifying the contracting officer about any contract performance problems. Program offices are not authorized to change contract work, costs, or completion dates or to enforce [c]ontract provisions. Only contracting officers have the authority to do that. This concentration of authority in the contracting officer is an integral part of internal control within the contracting process.
(?Civilian Agency Procurement: Improvements Needed in Contracting and Contract Administration,? GGD-89-109, at 25 (Sept. 1989).)

Unauthorized commitments by program personnel may cause the Government to be bound by terms established by someone without the same concerns or professional standards of contracting officers. Program personnel are primarily responsible for carrying out the missions of the agency, rather than observing Federal laws and regulations concerning the procurement.
(?Unauthorized Commitments: An Abuse of Contracting Authority in the Department of Energy,? EMD-81-12, at 5 (Dec. 1980).)

From: Neal & Co., Inc. v. U.S., 945 F.2d 385 (Fed. Cir., 1991):

In enacting ? 605 of the Contract Disputes Act, Congress described the flexible role of the contracting officer:

While the objective may be to make the contracting officer the focal point for decisions, practicability dictates that the extent to which the contracting officer relies on his own judgment or abides by the advice or determination of others is dependent on a variety of factors, including ... the nature of the particular procurement....
t is impossible to generalize as to what the contracting officer's role should be in all situations....

From: Grumman Aerospace Corp. ex rel. Rohr Corp., ASBCA 50090, 01-1 BCA ? 31316:

The Government has also argued that it ?logically follows? that the conclusions a contracting officer reaches while analyzing the claim prior to writing a final decision are similarly entitled to no weight. We do not agree? We recognize in this regard that a contracting officer's testimony may be based on an independent examination of the events after the fact. This is not an uncommon role for a contracting officer and the evidence is entitled to be heard since it stems from the contracting officer's responsibility to independently evaluate the merits of the contractor's claim. We may, of course, give appropriate weight to the contracting officer's evidence.

From: Thornton, Fine-Tuning Acquisition Reform?s Favorite Procurement Vehicle, the Indefinite Delivery Contract, Public Contracts Law Journal (Spring 2002), 31 PUBCONLJ 383:

A consciousness-raising is needed to better define and appreciate the role of the Contracting Officer on the acquisition team. Only then can program managers, technical experts, and end users learn to accept that only specific work statements can be well managed. This includes an appreciation that bundled, nationwide work statements are impossible to manage effectively. Otherwise, the value a Contracting Officer adds to the process erodes and the whole procurement suffers. It is time to shift focus to identify tools and adopt policies that enable Contracting Officers to contain and remedy those troubles?

The use of task and delivery order contracts to execute interagency orders has been associated with the same kinds of abuses as indefinite delivery contracting. The common denominator is the receding role of the Contracting Officer and his or her ability to enforce rules intended to preserve competition.

From: Goodman, Legal Dilemmas in the Weapon Acquisition Process: The Procurement of the SSN-688 Attack Submarine, Yale Law and Policy Review (1988), 6 YLLPR 393:

A 1987 report of the Public Contract Law Section of the American Bar Association examined their role:

The role of the DoD contracting officer is changing from the traditional to a less well-defined position of diminished significance and shared authority . . . [T]he current acquisition environment blankets the contracting officer with oversight, laws and regulations . . . Such diffusion of authority can only mean a diminished role for the contracting officer which, extended to the ultimate conclusion, will result in no identifiable Government official at the operating level being responsible for efficient contracting practices or accountable for contracting failures.

Ad Hoc Comm. on the Role of the DoD Contracting Officers, The DoD Contracting Officer, 1987 A.B.A. Sec. Pub. L. Rep. 93, cited in Report on Acquisition Policy, supra note 136, at B-15.

From: Kurtis R. Mayer and Pamela Mayer d/b/a Mayer Built Homes, HUDBCA 83-823-C20, 84-2 BCA ? 17494:

In S. Rep. No. 95-118, 95th Cong., 2d Sess. 21-22 (1978), the concern of Congress over the role of the contracting officer was clear:

Section 5 describes explicitly the decisionmaking role of the contracting officer. Equally important is a thorough knowledge by the contractor of the role and authority that the contracting officer plays in the decisionmaking process of the agency he represents . . .. While the objective may be to make the contracting officer the focal point for decisions, practicability dictates that the extent to which the contracting officer relies on his own judgment or abides by the advice or determination of others is dependent on a variety of factors, including the officer's personal knowledge, capability, and executive qualities, as well as the nature of the particular procurement. With so many variables, it is impossible to generalize as to what the contracting officer's role should be in all situations.

From: Morgan, Identifying Protected Government Acts Under The Sovereign Acts Doctrine: A Question of Acts and Actors, Public Contracts Law Journal (Winter 1993), 22 PUBCONLJ 223:

The contracting officer may be omnipotent for purposes of the contract, but his authority is considerably more limited where the implementation of directions from higher authority is involved. To presume that all actions of the contracting officer which affect the contract are somehow acts of the government in its contractual capacity stretches reason beyond recognition.

From: Schultz, Proposed Changes in Government Contract Disputes Settlement: The Legislative Battle Over the Wunderlich Case, Harvard Law Review (December 1953), 67 HVLR 217:

It may well be that the early Government contracts with which the Supreme Court dealt were as freely bargained for as were the private contracts, and the Army engineer as independent as the private engineer, architect, or other expert. But with the phenomenal growth of Government contracting, the exclusive use of the standard form contract, and the changing role of the contracting officer from expert to Government agent, neither of these assumptions holds true.

From: Wall, Surviving Commercial Pricing Rules, Public Contracts Law Journal (Summer 1994), 23 PUBCONLJ 553:

Arguably, since the passage of the Truth in Negotiations Act in 1962, the law which has had the most impact on pricing U.S. Government contracts was the Inspector General Act of 1978. The principal reason is that this Act fundamentally changed the relationships between the contracting officer, contract auditor, and contractor.

To some, the Act's implementation has confused the role of the contracting officer, who is supposed to be the U.S. Government's independent decision maker, and the role of the contract auditor, who is supposed to be the contracting officer's financial advisor. For instance, prior to the Inspector General Act, the contracting officer was unencumbered (perhaps too unencumbered) in deciding upon the disposition of an auditor's finding. Now the contracting officer must adhere to special policies and procedures? .


Note the high expectations of some of the writers, and the idealist image of the contracting officer. Are they matched by reality?

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"Note the high expectations of some of the writers, and the idealist image of the contracting officer. Are they matched by reality?"

Considering that the majority of contracting officers that I have met could barely write a cogent sentence, the thought of synthesizing evidence and argumentation from both the Government and a contractor into an objective COFD, seems quite laughable to me.

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I should also add that off the 4 contracting activities I have supported so far (2 civilian, 2 DOD) none of them provided access to LexisNexis, Westlaw, or any other engine for obtaining case law. That makes it pretty hard to do your job well.

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