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Guest Vern Edwards

A friend directed my attention to a blog post at Federal Computer Week online written by former OFPP Administrator Steve Kelman, who now teaches at Harvard. He proposed an idea:

The idea is that each contracting professional in the office chooses a contract through which he or she will be buying something over the next year that is the same or similar to something bought in the past. They make themselves a personal pledge – like the goals regarding the contract this contracting professional at the meeting spoke about – to find at least one way to improve the process and (hopefully) the results of the buy the next time it is done. Each employee would make his or her own pledge, and maybe write it down. (Writing down a goal has been proven to improve the chances it will be achieved.)

Steve's idea prompted a rather hostile response from a couple of commenters.

http://fcw.com/blogs/lectern/2013/06/taking-the-pledge.aspx

What do you think?

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As a retiree but pulling my Federal employee shoes back on, I have mixed emotion regarding Kelman’s idea.

Committing to goals is clearly important. For acquisition it reminded me of not only of Kelman’s seeking of pledges in the early 90’s during the National Performance Review and management reform of the Clinton era as he notes but the promotion and use of partnering agreements in Corps of Engineers large construction projects. Yet, on the other hand I do question his reality by implication where he paints a broad stroke that contract professionals are not doing their best, nor setting personal goals, to make the process for every procurement better than the last one. Sure there are probably some that are not but I guess I have a little more faith that the majority are.

In the final analysis for me I think he could have gotten his message across without use of the word “pledge” or even better yet ask the rhetorical question _"What are you doing to make the process better for the next procurement you are doing?"

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I think a formal requirement for a pledge is of little value added; however, I believe if individuals, such as those that frequent wifcon, were to take a personal pledge to consciously try and improve the acquisition process and document their finding for others to view I think it would be of value. If only there was a forum we could do such a thing….

For the most part I think all these types of initiatives go back to the fact we need to be thinking in everything we do. The concept of thinking before we do something was detailed in the following blog post by Mr. Edwards – Great Read http://www.wifcon.com/discussion/index.php?/blog/2/entry-3019-think-maybe/ .

So to address the question as to whether the comments concerning Mr. Kelman’s article are too harsh, I think the answer is yes. Even though the idea is very fluffy you never know who will read it and actually do it. If an individual has a goal of implementing one idea to improve the process, if nothing else, they should be actively thinking about how to improve which I believe is half the battle.

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Kelman is suggesting an individual make the pledge to themself - not a public pledge, but a private one. If that notion or word "pledge" offends or seems inappropriate to some, they should skip it and not worry any more about it.

There is always room for improvement. Kelman is just suggesting we make it a habit of looking for a way to improve rather than just repeating what has been done before.

Let's face it, there are a lot of people in our offices who are happy to repeat what has been done before, and call themselves successful.

I don't think Kelman is suggesting anything negative about contracting staff. But some of the responses made are evidence that there are a lot of negative attitudes amongst some of our co-workers.

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Not a Federal employee so perhaps my opinion doesn't matter much. But I think it's very telling that Mr. Kelman chose to appeal directly to the front-line COs rather than to, say, Charlie Williams, Jr. or the head of DAU or the head of OFPP or Shay Assad or Dick Ginman. I'm tempted to think he's given up on the notion of top-down driven change, and thinks an appeal to the individual ethic might lead to real change.

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this. But if not, then he's sending a message (perhaps unintended) about the current state of leadership in the Federal acquisition corps.

H2H

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Right or wrong, I believe many "boots on the ground" COs feel they do not have the flexibility to make process improvements. The increase of the S-word (standardization) and mandated procurement methods (example: Army MICC mandating use of Fed Bid for product procurements), combined with heavy workloads and a less-experienced acquisition workforce lead to the situation where we are at today. I do not believe making a pledge (public or private) will improve upon that.

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I agree with Desparado that mandated standardization has been a killer to innovative thinking and good work. It has been very painful to see good ideas dismissed, or if they are recognized, they take years to implement because so many are reluctant to consider a change.

But, pledge or not, it's important that we keep thinking and looking at things anew.

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... (example: Army MICC mandating use of Fed Bid for product procurements),...

well, that explains why I saw a requirement on FedBid for a Religious Education Director, and whoever won the reverse auction would then have to pass an interview with the base chaplain. The Fed Bid posting said a Master's Degree was required; the awardee didn't have even a BA.

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Received recently:

I know that we do have an important job, I just wish the agency would be more open to change and improvement so that we can function better.

It is funny though, the difference in attitude here compared to XXXX. At XXXX, employees had no problem speaking their minds and criticizing the agency when they felt it was necessary... and managers listened and made strides to try to change for the better. Here, it seems that everyone is afraid to speak their minds, like it's all some big secret. It's no secret, it's all over the internet, current and former employees are speaking out even. That may be part of the problem.... everyone is afraid to speak up to make change, so things just carry on. ... Employees throughout DoD are mad about a lot of things, but XXXXX seems to be so silent .... Maybe if everyone felt more confident about themselves, something could change. We'll see. I'm holding strong.

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The concept of making a personal pledge to improve the process is interesting, but would probably conclude with the pledge being a fool's errand. Standardization is one reason. Cookie-cutter contracting is becoming the norm. Another reason is because the customer (i.e. program office) is now running the procurement process, and contracting shops are becoming customer service organizations. If I had a dollar for every time I was told "We didn't do it that way before, so we aren't going to do it now", I wouldn't have to suffer through any more furlough Fridays.

There are those who want to improve the procurement process. There are those who are verbal in wanting to improve the procurement process. There are those who do it in silence. There are those who know how it'll end, and suffer in silence.

Here_2_help makes a good point about if everyone felt more confident in themselves. Maybe that's why people pine about the "good old days." We we were encouraged to bring something to the table other than an appetite. We were encouraged to try something different, new, without getting taken to task by customers and upper management. We wanted to improve the process and get out the work instead of "Just get out the work."

Reminds me of Godfather II, when Frankie Five Angels leaves Michael Corelone in anger because Michael tells him not to do anything, and Michael says "That man had too much wine."

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Guest Vern Edwards

Just to set the record straight:

Contracting offices have been "becoming" customer service organizations since the "re-engineering" movement of the early 1990s, when management gurus started complaining about organizational "stovepipes" and urging units within organizations to start thinking about their internal "customers." Contracting shops, led by ambitious managers seeking promotion and without core professional principles and a genuinely professional culture, began talking about "customer service." Conferences were held and crusades were launched.

Combine (1) re-engineering, (2) the growth of desktop "computing" (word processing and data entry is more like it), (3) the elimination of clerical/administrative support, (4) the merging of 1102s with 1105s, (5) the reduction in the size of the contracting workforce, (6) the piling on of legislation and regulation in response to "customer service" driven poor professional practice, (7) the general lack of professional knowledge and expertise among contracting personnel, and (8) the refusal of higher level management to force program offices to meet their own schedule milestones and you end up where we are today.

The desire to provide better service to program offices was right, but professionals have clients, not customers, and clients, unlike customers, are not always right.

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Speaking of “cookie-cutter” contracting and automated systems that build solicitations/contracts I’ve come to the opinion that in many cases utilizing a programed solicitation builder can actually provide a better document. I see offices who have an agency sponsored “solicitation builder” but don’t use it and instead produce wild-free-form solicitations that are just incredibly bad. And they perpetuate themselves as it compounded by the folks continually cutting and pasting from those wildly defective documents ad infinitum.

Where if they had utilized the “system” it would have at least established some semblance of side-boards that they were otherwise oblivious to. My agency has an automated system but it is not even closely used to its fullest potential. Mostly due to: Very poor instructions and guides – like having to entirely furnish your house with assemble your own Ikea furniture directions and one screwdriver; No impetus by managers to motivate folks to use it let alone why nor to get the contractor of the system to provide clear guides or intelligent thought out adjustments.

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Guest Vern Edwards

Forget about automated systems. Start another thread if you want to talk about that. Let's get back to the question at hand: What do you think about Steve Kelman's pledge idea?

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I think the pledge is a great idea -- not as a mandate, of course, but on a voluntary basis. As a contracting supervisor, I would be tremendously gratified if another manager or an employee came forward and said there is ONE good thing he or she wants to try to achieve or do differently on ONE acquisition -- I would be happy to work with him or her to examine the realities and maybe even make it happen. I have done it myself, letting other acquisitions run the normal course while I purposefully did something different on just one acquisition.

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I bring critical thought in almost every "acquisition" I am in involved with....simple to complex. I look at it at along the lines of a "better mouse trap." - What can I do that will result in better/improved x,y or z? Certainly the gravitas and extent is proportional to the circumstances.

Many of my contract files have a running document with "notes to self" that are dialogues basically of what went right and what went wrong.

The pledge proposition is silly to me. If Mr K presented that, and I was present....I'd try to maintain equanimity to refrain from blurting out..."And after the pledge let's get all the kids in the neighborhood and put on a play!"

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How many COs conduct discussions now? If someone independently look at contract files, they likely will find numerous ways bargining with offerors over price and other issues would result in better deals for the government. But many solicitations now result in contracts without discussions.

There are so many tools and techniques that aren't used because COs rountinely follow what they know and are comfortable doing. One of my favorites is conducting market research - get the entire team holding one on one sessions with industry and other customers (government and non-government) to learn about the marketplace, what's available and waht isn't, lessons learned and best practices, marketplace differentiators, etc. This forms the basis of acquisition planning and strategy. But it's rarely done.

How about oral presentations? Reverse auctions? Source selections that are tailored towards the acquisition need rather than bolierplate ones? Past performance evaluations that involve actually talking and asking probling questions of an offerors experience rather than email questionanaires of non meaningful items?

One example of taking the easy routes is all the LPTA methods recently used. I know the budget situation drives much but a good CO can achieve savings through just bargaining.

I also know there's a shortage of experienced COs, workload is heavy, and everyone is overworked. But trying Steve's idea should be fun and exciting and worth squeezing in.

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  • 3 months later...

Making people take a pledge? Seems kind of silly and if attempted across the board will just be treated as a joke.

A better approach might be establishing process improvement as a divisional project spread across teams within the branches. Every quarter several teams could present their findings to the rest of the branch.

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  • 4 months later...

Sometimes the silliest ideas spark something wonderful. I worked in an office where management treated us like robots and morale was very low. Rather than wallow in it, I did something really goofy thinking it would lend a day of levity. I bought some gold stars and every time I caught something doing something right or productive or kind, I gave them a gold star and told them I appreciated them. Oddest think happened. People started coming to me to get stars so that could appreciate a co-worker. It really caught on! Who would think that adults would embrace something like that? So even if it's silly, give it a shot even if it's you looking at yourself in the mirror. Because after all, that is who you really answer to - the person in the mirror.

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