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Vern Edwards

Funny or tragic? Part I

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An interesting column by Daniel Henninger in the October 8 edition of The Wall Street Journal entitled, "Killer Bureaucracies." Here is a tantalizing excerpt:

People who study how complex systems work or fail have long known that introducing new or additional rules often increases the odds that the people operating the systems will make more mistakes. Under pressure from managers and machines, they are often undertrained, unfocused and distracted. Unless you are a machine, successful multitasking is an oxymoron.

Is that what happened in the case of the justification that we've been writing about? Or were they just inexcusably careless or incompetent?

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I would say the former coupled with the thought expressed by H2H. Afterall the program manager had a hand in the justification or one would conclude so since it carried the manager's signature.

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People want what they want, and it's up to us to make sure they follow the rules to get what they need. The Controller came to me and wanted to know my thoughts about the following scenario: A group of design engineers had been moved out of individual offices and into a cubicle warren in order to foster collaboration (I'm sure the thought of saving money never entered the decision-making process). After a couple of weeks, the engineers all complained about the noise and not being able to concentrate and how it was affecting their ability to work. So they requested noise-cancelling headphones. Specifically, Bose brand noise-cancelling headphones. The expensive model. She wanted to know what I thought about the justification.

After 1 minute of research I told her that the Bose headphones cancelled a lot of noise all right, just not in the frequencies used by the human voice.

H2H

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The obfuscation of FAR 8 and 16 in this document is not very surprising to me. When I worked in a USAF contracting office, I knew of COs that believed that the AF NETCENTS contracts were federal supply schedules governed by FAR 8 rather than FAR 16. I had hoped that maybe the CO in this case lazily chose the wrong document template (i.e. a FAR 8 template in lieu of a FAR 16 template), but the numerous errors in the section titles, such as section "Y" and VII, lead me to believe that they manually typed up this little number.

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All I can say is, good thing back in the day we didn't have the requirement to publish the J&A's we used to justify buying IBM typewriters vs. Olivetti typewriters. The Olivetti's were lots cheaper but all the secretaries liked the IBM better. There were many a creative (laughable)justification written to justify the expense of paying more for the IBM. Plus we all know what happened after the first Commander's secretary got an IBM approved. Next thing, every other secretary on the installation had to have an IBM, too. My only point is, this is not remotely the first poorly written J&A and certainly is not the last one that will be written. We will tire from critiquing lousy J&A's long before we see any measurable improvement in the quality of them.

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In my experience a lot of people tend to confuse the various justification documents and formats from different parts (6, 8, 16) of the FAR. The Army's Computer Hardware Enterprise Software and Solutions (CHESS) program contracts are also Part 16 contracts, but the ordering guides instructs you to prepare justifications using the FAR Part 8 format. I just ran across a question on the Ask A Professor site when an individual asked about preparing Class Brand Name Justifications for Part 8 buys, and the answer given was that it is possible in accordance with FAR Part 6. Here is a link to that particular Q&A: https://dap.dau.mil/aap/pages/qdetails.aspx?cgiSubjectAreaID=3&cgiQuestionID=120988

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Most of the poorly written J&As I've seen in contract file audits have been those written and approved solely by a lazy contracting officer, and often they also fail to publicize the J&A. J&As that are reviewed and approved by multiple higher-graded contracting/legal personnel (in this case, two GS-14s and a GS-15) are typically not so poorly written and justified. You have to keep in mind, too, that this probably went through some kind of policy review prior to the CoCO or competition advocate reviews. It reflects poorly on an entire contracting organization as opposed to one CO.

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A lot of people are bashing COs, or calling them lazy, but I wanted to provide an alternate view. Some people may chide me for saying this, but from personal experience, there are situations where the CO has a choice between going along with a poorly written justification or facing negative career implications.

In this instance, there were several very high ranking individuals that approved this justification, many who were in a position of authority over the CO. I have experienced management pressure a CO to make a predetermined decision and in a limited amount of time. The CO can choose the ethical road and become a road block, usually at the actual or implied threat of his or her career.

What I think could have happened is that the end of Fiscal year budget scrub found a bunch of money that the AF wanted to spend and someone high up wanted shiny new iPads. The CO was sent a Requisition with a few weeks or days before September 30 to enter into a contract. The CO had twice as much work to do because of the AF's hiring freeze. The information that the CO had was already sloppy, and the CO did not have any time to correct them because they were working on more important projects. The dollar value of the acquisition was not very high for an AF procurement, and the CO choose not to be a roadblock to avoid the ire of his management over a relatively small procurement.

I have had several COs from different agencies (both DOD and Civilian) tell me that when their management is involved in contracting related decisions, they are afraid that taking the ethical road will result in "does not work well with others" in their performance review or getting a write-up for insubordination. Some may say that these people should grow a spine and stick up for themselves, but the reality is that people have mortgages and family members to take care of and they are not going to risk career suicide. Historically, despite the government touting its whistleblower protections, many well-intended whistleblowers end up as pariahs. GovExec reported back in July that retaliation against whistleblowers is now reaching a level where agencies file criminal charges against employees, requiring thousands of dollars in legal fees.

My point is that this may be an agency problem, not necessarily a CO problem, and it is not limited to just the AF.

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If the justification was valid, the CO should have rewritten it. If the justification was not valid, the CO should not have signed it.

Period.

Love America. Do your job.

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I have had several COs from different agencies (both DOD and Civilian) tell me that when their management is involved in contracting related decisions, they are afraid that taking the ethical road will result in "does not work well with others" in their performance review or getting a write-up for insubordination.

If these people had a healthy fear that was bigger than the unhealthy fear described above, they would hopefully do differently in this kind of situation. I hope this encourages you. :)

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A lot of people are bashing COs, or calling them lazy, but I wanted to provide an alternate view. Some people may chide me for saying this, but from personal experience, there are situations where the CO has a choice between going along with a poorly written justification or facing negative career implications.

In this instance, there were several very high ranking individuals that approved this justification, many who were in a position of authority over the CO. I have experienced management pressure a CO to make a predetermined decision and in a limited amount of time. The CO can choose the ethical road and become a road block, usually at the actual or implied threat of his or her career.

What I think could have happened is that the end of Fiscal year budget scrub found a bunch of money that the AF wanted to spend and someone high up wanted shiny new iPads. The CO was sent a Requisition with a few weeks or days before September 30 to enter into a contract. The CO had twice as much work to do because of the AF's hiring freeze. The information that the CO had was already sloppy, and the CO did not have any time to correct them because they were working on more important projects. The dollar value of the acquisition was not very high for an AF procurement, and the CO choose not to be a roadblock to avoid the ire of his management over a relatively small procurement.

I have had several COs from different agencies (both DOD and Civilian) tell me that when their management is involved in contracting related decisions, they are afraid that taking the ethical road will result in "does not work well with others" in their performance review or getting a write-up for insubordination. Some may say that these people should grow a spine and stick up for themselves, but the reality is that people have mortgages and family members to take care of and they are not going to risk career suicide. Historically, despite the government touting its whistleblower protections, many well-intended whistleblowers end up as pariahs. GovExec reported back in July that retaliation against whistleblowers is now reaching a level where agencies file criminal charges against employees, requiring thousands of dollars in legal fees.

My point is that this may be an agency problem, not necessarily a CO problem, and it is not limited to just the AF.

metteec,

I see your point. However, Government employees have a code of ethics to guide their decision-making. These are stated at 5 C.F.R. 2635.101( b ). The first ethical principle states:

Public service is a public trust, requiring employees to place loyalty to the Constitution, the laws, and ethical principles above private gain.

So, in the scenario that you described where a CO has a choice between doing their job and facing negative personal consequences or not doing their job and increasing their potential for personal reward (bonus, promotion, etc.) the ethical choice is clear.

There's a quote from a Harvard Business Review article titled "The Ethical Mind" that has stuck with me and would like to share:

f you are not prepared to resign or be fired for what you believe in, then you are not a worker, let alone a professional. You are a slave.

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I for one took a big hit early in my career for buying Olivetti typewriters when the requester asked for IBM Selectric without justification. Would I do it again? Probably, but first I would let the end user know where it was headed and what might be done to change the outcome, such as going over my head.

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Good afternoon, Charlie! Hope you are enjoying the early Fall weather over ther and hope you had a great weekend. Your post reminded me of a similar situation many years ago, but from the perspective of being a very disappointed end user.

Back in 1977, a few years before going to work for the Corps as a Fed, we lived in Hartford, Wisconsin, a small town in SE Wisconsin. We happened to live about 2 blocks above the old "Kissel Car" factory, which was then the Chrysler Outboard Motor factory. One of my neighbors was a carbueration engineer there. He quit to go to work for Harley Davidson Co in Milwaukee. One day, we were talking about his job experience and how frustrated he had been working at Chrsyler. He told me flat out "Joel, don't ever buy a Chrysler outboard. They are horrible, especially the lower units." Then he said that Chrsler didn't do any new, independent design. They would purchase motors from Mercury, Evinrude and Johnson, they would disassemble, reverse engineer and copy the other designs.

A couple years later, I moved to Mississippi to work for the Corps of Engineers on a large Civil Works project . Our office needed an 18 foot motorized flat bottomed boat for inspecting several contract sites that were only easily accessible from the River. We put in the request to "Procurement and Supply Division" and were told that they had orderedt the boat and motor through GSA supply schedule and it would take six weeks! Oh- it was a Chrysler ! My boss, who had a ski boat, almost went through the ceiling! But not knowing any better how to obtain an Evinrude or Johnson, like all of the motors that the District Operations folks used, we waited until it came in. The park ranger who had a field office in our parking lot, laughed at us when he saw the new boat. He said, that piece of junk won't last the summer. He said that Ops knew how to justify name brand requests and were very happy with their motors.

Needless to say, the lower unit broke in one week. We had it fixed only to break again within a couple weeks! We never used it again. We borrowed a Johnson from Ops and used it Til the office closed the next year. Lesson Learned!

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Joel and Cajuncharlie:

The days you two wrote about were long before the enactment of CICA in 1984. In those days the CO would have been conducting a procurement pursuant to 32 CFR (ASPR) § 3.210, "Supplies or services for which is it impracticable to secure competition by formal advertising, or made from Federal Supply Schedules, under ASPR Part 5, "Interdepartmental Procurement," Subpart A, "Procurement Under Federal Supply Schedule Contracts."

Either way, requirements to justify purchasing a particular item or to procure on a sole source basis in relatively small dollar amounts were minimal, usually nothing more than a memo in no particular format signed by the CO. There were no specific criteria for making such purchases and there was no requirement to publish the justification.

No one criticized me for justifying the purchase of IBM typewriters under GSA schedules. It wasn't hard to do. They were clearly superior to other makes, the superiority was easy to describe in plain English, and it was worth the higher price, which is what I told salesmen of other makes to their face when they came to see me. I would have been criticized for buying anything other than IBM. When surplus IBM's went on public sale at the base, the line was out the door of the supply department and around the corner. I don't remember such lines for surplus Olivetties, Royals, or Remingtons. (Although I just bought a couple of old manual Olivetti and Remington typewriters to use for fun.)

See Royal Typewriter Co., GAO Dec. B-177960, Aug. 17, 1973 for an example of a sole source justification for buying IBM that worked, and Olivetti Corp. of America, GAO Dec. B-187369, Feb. 28, 1977, for one that didn't. See Remington Rand Corp.; SCM Corp.; Olivetti Corp., GAO Dec. B-204084, May 3, 1982, for the GAO's denial of a protest against GSA's comparative evaluation of IBM and other typewriters. See Olympia USA, Inc., GAO Dec. B-216509, Nov. 8, 1984, for GAO's denial of another such protest. The typewriter wars ended in the mid-1980s. IBM won.

As for purchase of the boat, Joel, that wasn't failure to buy a particular make or model, but failure to do adequate market research. Admittedly, such market research would have been more difficult in pre-internet days. In any case, your story is not relevant to the topic of this thread.

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Sorry for straying, Vern. No, my boss didn't have any idea of how to ask for a specific brand of motor back then and I dont remember how he made the requisition. We were a construction Resident Engineer field office a couple of hundred miles away from the HQ in Mobile, AL. Our local "market research" would have made no difference to the people in Mobile. P&S told my boss that they had to go through GSA, not our local trade area. Chrysler was the least expensive outboard motor, so they bought it.

But this thread did make me wonder how an agency would write a good brand name justification. The Corps of Engineers standardized their entire suite of laptops and desk top desktop computers several years ago, to replace virtually all previous brands and models. They bought Dell computers and replaced all those with successor series Dell computers a few years later. There are probably 30,000 users involved. There may have been one competitive contract award with option years with Dell being the winner. I don't know. The USACE IT organization is the result of an A-76 competition. A Government-Contractor team combination won the competition.

We also standardized software years ago around Microsoft even before the A-76 competition. Must have been some Corps-wide acquisition methods used.

At any rate, if USACE can do that, it makes me wonder why Air Force hasn't done it. If they had, they could have used year end money to purchase off of a master contract, I would think.

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Oh, I thought of Cajun Charlie this morning before checking WIFCON and there was his post! I used to live near where he is working overseas. Fall weather usually reminds me of his location in the winter time and how I loved that weather. Weekends there are on different days than here...

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Why Joel, you are becoming nostalgic in your old age.

But this thread did make me wonder how an agency would write a good brand name justification.

An agency can justify use of a brand name specification only on the basis of some attribute that is essential to meeting the agency's need and that is possessed only by the brand name item. The agency must (1) describe its need, (2) identify the attribute that is essential to meeting its need, (3) justify the assertion that the attribute is essential to meeting its need, and (4) demonstrate that only the brand name item possess that attribute. It must write a justification that makes the following argument:

P1 A and B: Our need is A and attribute X is required to meet our need.

P2: Only Brand Z has that attribute.

C: Therefore, only Brand Z can satisfy our requirement.

The conclusion is true if the premises are true. If any of the premises is not true, then the conclusion is false unless true on other grounds. In order to attack the conclusion, a protester must attack one of the premises.

P1A - The agency's need is not A. That is not likely to work, because the GAO and the Court of Claims will not question an agency's assertion of its need unless it is patently false.

P1B - The attribute is not required to meet the need. Not likely to work for the above reason.

P2 - Brand Name Z is not the only one that has that attribute. Will be successful if proven.

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Then, I assume but will check sometime to verify that that is what happened with our organization. So, if the Air Force needed Apple for their network, they could have used some type of standardization acquisition strategy perhaps. This looked like a fragmented way to standardize around Apple.

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An argument for standardization is usually an argument for economic efficiency, as opposed to an argument for technical compatibility. I'm not sure how successful a justification based on economic efficiency would be.

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Vern, you said earlier that there was a failure to perform "market analysis" for our boat motor requisition. Our experience with the "flag pole " P&S office a couple of hundred miles away was frustrating and we realized that they would not advertise in our locality for supplies or services. I had recently joined the Federal Service after working as a consulting engineer for private and municipal clients. There, we advertised projects in local newspapers and in industry publications such as Dodge Reports and posted solicition advertisements in the Dodge Room.

Shortly after rhe Chrysler debacle, because we had little faith in the P&S, we decided to advertise in the local newspapers for painting and trim repairs to our field office building, which was located on the Tombigbee River in a rural area. This was a small job for which we knew P&S would turn into a bureaucratic mountain. We developed a scope of work that interested contractors could pick up at the office when they would come inspect the building. We asked for bids with some cut-off date. We received a half dozen bids from local painters, ranging between around $900 to over $2000. We sent them in to P&S with a request to issue a contract. As you can imagine, my boss got his butt reamed for that but they did issue the contract and we got the building fixed and painted in a short time at a very reasonable price. It was great feeling even after the chastisement we received. I guess you could say we performed "market analysis" in our own way, stepping far out of our stove piped lane. Being frustrated with bureaucracy, we took matters into our own hands.

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Joel,

You are taking the thread off point. Please either stick to the topic of the quality of the brand name justification or start a thread of your own. I'm sure that some people are interested in the histories of your boat and your paint and trim acquisitions, but they are s a distraction in this thread.

Vern

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One item that jumped out at me after re-reading the J&A Mr. Edwards posted:

[O]wners will have access to vastly more applications than are available for any other tablet.

If these iPads are to be used by Air Force personnel, for official Air Force business, wouldn't these devices be locked down to prevent unauthorized installation of non-DoD/USAF applications (games, media players, et cetera)? I know Apple provides a sysadmin tool for enterprise deployment that can curb user rights on Apple smartphones and tablets, and I believe Google provides similar software.

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I think Larry or Moe could have surpassed this. Unsure about Curly.

I second the comments regarding the decline of our profession. I think public shaming is an excellent idea. It is both effective and free. But let's try to aim our fire away from the Stooges, who I can only assume were geniuses off the screen.

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me,

I have yet to read a JOFOC that I found persuasive.

Why does the AF find competition so scary ?

GSA FSS is intended to subvert the 4 main principles of the FAR:

  • fair and reasonable pricing
  • openness / transparency
  • competition
  • socioeconomic programs

and is pretty good at that.

AF contracting culture is thoroughly corrupt.

"what the customer wants" is their only aim.

nobody in AF contracting is looking out for the taxpayer.

bigger picture,

$ 3 M is chump change.

go after the humongous frauds; ignore this.

"GG" is not competitive civil service.

I think all Intel activities use this, so they can avoid the rules for competitive hiring and promotion.

there is no cronier culture than one that is exempt from oversight.

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AF contracting culture is thoroughly corrupt.

"what the customer wants" is their only aim.

nobody in AF contracting is looking out for the taxpayer.

bigger picture,

$ 3 M is chump change.

go after the humongous frauds; ignore this.

It sounds like you have experienced some hard things in contracting. Be sure that it doesn't get to you as well. I am not surprised when I hear that people are corrupt. I have learned that the hard way (similar to how it sounds like you have learned). I used to feel some kind of moral obligation to maximize taxpayer savings. Then, I realized that no taxpayer was getting a refund check for any savings. As a defense contractor employee, I now seek in good faith (and truthfully) to help the government spend as much money as it desires. I hope this perspective helps you where you are.

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