Jump to content

Recommended Posts

Our leadership team in acquisitions has an issue with our COs, they come to us for every little thing. While we're happy to teach and provide training, it seems that the default when anything arises is to ask their supervisors. I'm talking from simple things like "what's the micropurchase threshold" and "what provisions and clauses should I include" to more complex concepts like "how should we structure this evaluation criteria?" In other offices I've been in, 90% of the questions we answer would have never been brought to the supervisor (lest they think you don't know what you're doing). These are COs with anywhere from 5-15 years of experience under their belt, warranted between $5M and $15M. We provide internal training, opportunities for external trainings, bring in SMEs to talk with the staff, provide materials for them to read and resources for them to use but we're at a loss. Does anyone have any advice, reading, techniques, anything to help us try to get our COs to think for themselves?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 hour ago, Supes said:

Does anyone have any advice, reading, techniques, anything to help us try to get our COs to think for themselves?

Advice: If they want to act like "new" specialist then treat them like, take their warrants away or fire them. 

Reading: Vern's Words of Wisdom - Contracting Workforce - The Wifcon Forums and Blogs to start. 

Techniques: "Don't come to me with a problem without a proposed solution."

Anything: If you have a workforce that has been around for 5-15 years and have never learned to research, act or think for themselves then you have little chance of turning that around. Could be an outcome of past leadership requiring them to ask about every decision they make. 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

This is a thing that probably every B-School or general management book covers, something like 'empower your team' or 'how to delegate to your direct reports'  Google re:Work has a bunch of stuff on this.  https://rework.withgoogle.com/

  • Get *honest* feedback from the CO's themselves as to why they are acting like that, and listen to it.
  • Explicitly define the responsibilities.
  • Don't micromanage.  In your case, perhaps that means refusing to answer the question.
  • Forgive mistakes.  "I told you to make your own eval criteria, and you did, and your sol flunked review.  That's okay. Let's go through, and try again." 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

My manager in my last government job was a big proponent of customer service.  That didn’t mean breaking rules but leveraging available tools to meet program needs.  “Customer” also extended to financial, legal, and oversight.  Constant performance feedback was a constant theme to me and I did the same to everyone else in the office.

We started using government employees who were “internal consultant.”  They interviewed all employees but like General Z said.  Our management team received summary findings but without knowing who said it.  Lots of things were done over the next year including frank discussions to see employees personal interest.  Individual Development Plans were prepared based on employee identified needs and supervisor concurrence.  Employees were moved to other positions based partially on personal interest.  For example one contract specialist became the IT expert.  Another became the small business specialist.

Empowerment became the mantra.  Everyone was expected to handle assignments on this own.  The only caveat was they must research issues themselves but could seek advice from other employees.  For difficult matters, supervisors and managers were available.  

This didn’t diminish the importance of customer service.  Program office feedback was a critical part of employee evaluation.  Assignments started when program offices communicated a “need” and not when a “ready requisition” was submitted.  Employees were expected to give advice and assistance to program managers but not do their work.  

PALT was used to gauge overall office performance and spot trends and weaknesses but started when the program office need was communicated.  

Accountability was stressed throughout and was a big factor in performance evaluations.  That also was a big factor in earning employee bonuses which could be big.  

The change took time - 2 years to see improvements and 3 before significant results appeared.   The good thing this demonstrated results and our HR office saw justification to grease increases.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I understand that in some organizations, contracting officers are so brow-beaten and so under the thumbs of their policy staffs and attorneys that they are never allowed to grow and blossom -- they are never allowed to make decisions.  Anyone wanting to change the culture in a contracting officer needs to look to see if there is any of this going on.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I have seen this behavior a lot in the government. People are afraid to make decisions.  My current team lead is that way.  If someone asks a question, instead of us answering, she wants to up-channel it to higher HQ.  Her thinking is that if we give someone advice (e.g. making a decision), and the advice turns out to be wrong, then they will blame us for giving the wrong advice.  It drives me crazy!  I have also worked in a contracting office where specialists don't even review documents in a procurement package because they aren't the final reviewer/approver, so "why waste my time reviewing the document".  For example, they wouldn't review a Justification & Approval because it had to be reviewed/approved by legal anyway.  So they would send forward a document with many deficiencies saying "legal will tell us everything that is wrong with it anyway, so why should I even waste time reviewing it."  In essence, everyone just wants to be a paper pusher, and push the paper to the next office.  

This isn't exactly what you asked about, but I feel it is closely related. Until people are forced to change, then they won't.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

4 hours ago, Supes said:

Our leadership team in acquisitions has an issue with our COs, they come to us for every little thing. While we're happy to teach and provide training, it seems that the default when anything arises is to ask their supervisors. I'm talking from simple things like "what's the micropurchase threshold" and "what provisions and clauses should I include" to more complex concepts like "how should we structure this evaluation criteria?" In other offices I've been in, 90% of the questions we answer would have never been brought to the supervisor (lest they think you don't know what you're doing). These are COs with anywhere from 5-15 years of experience under their belt, warranted between $5M and $15M. We provide internal training, opportunities for external trainings, bring in SMEs to talk with the staff, provide materials for them to read and resources for them to use but we're at a loss. Does anyone have any advice, reading, techniques, anything to help us try to get our COs to think for themselves?

You get what you educate, train, develop, and appoint.

Poor education, poor training, careless development, lax standards of appointment... VOILA!

Professionalism is a habit of mind and action. It must be ingrained.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

40 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

If contracting officers are professionals, as some still say they are, then they don't have customers, they have clients. There is a world of difference.

Contracting officers do have clients in that professional sense.  The work environment I mentioned earlier focused on mission/program success.  In that context, mission was everyone’s goal.  I was once told I could put the perfect contract in place, awarded on time, no protests, and all the right clauses.  But what good is that if the mission failed?

Just a different context.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

@formerfedBut could you have mission success if the contract is poorly designed and drafted, awarded late after a sustained protest, and missing important clauses?

Everyone has a role. A CO's role is to design a contract that is both mission-appropriate and compliant with law and regulation; to award it in a timely manner and in a way that does not result in a successful protest; and to administer it in a manner that facilitates problem resolution and mission accomplishment. In order to do those things the CO needs to be a master of concepts, principles, the applicable rules, acquisition process design, and acquisition process execution.

The CO's client is the program, which looks to the CO for the knowledge and skill necessary to steer it safely past the rocks and shoals and the sandbars and mudflats of acquisition law, regulation, and process.

Think of the CO as a riverboat pilot on the Mississippi, who takes control of the vessel to bring it through a tricky part of the passage on the voyage to ultimate success.

When you take the conn, you have to know the river.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I couldn’t agree more Vern.  

From my personal observations, I don’t think there are nearly enough practitioners with a solid professional contracting as well as mission focus.  Actually it seems like there’s a shortage of both.

One disturbing trend that is consistent with the theme of this tread is COs lack of using available tools.  Too many take the shortest and easiest approach even when it’s not the best for mission.  Examples are overuse of LPTA, lack of conducting discussions, cutting and pasting evaluation from prior examples, and use of existing contract vehicles when they aren’t the most beneficial.

Going back to your prior statement of “You get what you educate, train, develop, and appoint,” development seems to me like the largest deficiency.  Most 1102s are required to take training from sources like DAU.  Good or bad, they still receive information.  They can take other courses and can study on their own.  But without development and a chance to do the actual work, their education deteriorates.  There aren’t many opportunities now in most contracting offices to do formal source selections on major buys.  The increase in SAP, the proliferation of multiple award IDIQ contracts, the push for LPTA, and the growth of other agencies willing to conduct acquisitions for others, all make for limited chances to grow and learn.  

Ot would be an interesting exercise to ask 1102s with moderate experience in the field, say 5 or even 10 years, if they have done a complex source selection with discussions.  I bet the response is low.  
 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 5/3/2021 at 8:40 AM, Supes said:

Does anyone have any advice, reading, techniques, anything to help us try to get our COs to think for themselves?

Do you think the COs' behavior is due to lack of knowledge (they don't know how to find answers for themselves) or laziness (they know how to find answers but prefer to have someone else find the answers for them)?

Link to comment
Share on other sites

2 hours ago, Don Mansfield said:

Do you think the COs' behavior is due to lack of knowledge (they don't know how to find answers for themselves) or laziness (they know how to find answers but prefer to have someone else find the answers for them)?

It feels like a mix to me but at this point in their careers they need to know how to look up answers. Some of the less experienced (but still 5+ years, GS13s) aren't confident in their decision making skills though a few of them research and come with well thought out problems but not answers. I think the bigger issue are the ones who have been there forever, they're used to having supervisors look everything up for them and make their decisions. 

I think the worst part of that the less experienced COs don't feel they can or even should reach out to the more experienced ones before coming to leadership because they see the senior COs don't  make their own decisions. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

So many times I’ve seen people embarrassed in our field by saying something like that can’t be done.  Then another person comes along and shows how says it can.  Sometimes there are multiple approaches to a given situation and maybe the proper answer is “it depends.”  So those people learn to not give an immediate answer and seek input from others.  Or they get shy and want someone else to answer.  

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

2 hours ago, ji20874 said:

It might be that the contracting officers themselves are part of the problem, but I think a major part of the problem is the culture of our contracting offices.

Yes, and part of that culture is appointing people to be contracting officers who are not qualified to be contracting officers on the basis of either personal traits, professional knowledge, or both.

Chief Acquisition Officers and Senior Procurement Executives have failed to create cultures of continuous study and learning in their organizations and have allowed Heads of Contracting Activities and Chiefs of Contracting Offices to hand out certificates of appointment to the wrong people for the wrong reasons—in order to mollify discontented workers demanding recognition and promotion and to provide enough signatures to keep the paperwork moving.

They have done great harm to the contracting career field, all while showing up to pontificate at "World Congresses" and promoting innovation and the latest big new thing in Contract Management magazine.

It is silly for Supes's managers to think or hope that they can change the people who are disappointing them. It is silly because they, themselves, failed to educate, train, and develop those people and made them contracting officers before they were ready. And whom do those managers blame? They blame their victims.

A manager, no matter how high, who is not a teacher, is not worth a damn.

Just. That. Simple.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 4 weeks later...

I am mindful of a number of instances where contracting leaders are trying to change their organizational cultures in a positive way, some large and some small, and I applaud their efforts.  I was involved with the DHS Procurement Innovation Lab (PIL) in the past, and they are doing good things.  Changing culture is hard work, and there are all sorts of obstacles, so I salute every win however large or small.  As time passes, I hope more contracting leaders will try to change their organizational cultures in positive ways and more contracting officers will seek and even demand the decision-making discretion that is rightfully theirs while adding real value to accomplishment of agency missions.  

Link to comment
Share on other sites

37 minutes ago, ji20874 said:

As time passes, I hope more contracting leaders will try to change their organizational cultures in positive ways and more contracting officers will seek and even demand the decision-making discretion that is rightfully theirs while adding real value to accomplishment of agency missions.  

I think three things need to happen to make significant improvements for contracting officers.  First is comprehensive training and I don’t mean just checking off completion of DAU courses.  I do mean lots of rotational assignments with very special purposes so they get real life experience.  This also includes non-contracting training to include things like communication, writing, facilitation, critical thinking, and making presentations.  Second is exposure and understanding of agency mission and programs so they see how contracting supports success.  Lastly, it’s changing procurement office culture to practice empowerment of competent contracting officers so they can make decisions and act on their own.  This means delegation, eliminating detailed oversight, changing policies so the COs role is more independent and not require multiple levels of review and approval to act.  On the flip side of this is accountability for their actions and decisions.   Appropriate rewards and recognition for successful accomplishment also should accompany that.

I recently heard a CO say he had to obtain review and approval of six individuals to use a Labor Hour contract for a small dollar value action.  That included legal and policy office and finally went to the deputy SPE.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

1 hour ago, formerfed said:

I think three things need to happen to make significant improvements for contracting officers.  First is comprehensive training and I don’t mean just checking off completion of DAU courses.  I do mean lots of rotational assignments with very special purposes so they get real life experience.  This also includes non-contracting training to include things like communication, writing, facilitation, critical thinking, and making presentations.  Second is exposure and understanding of agency mission and programs so they see how contracting supports success.  Lastly, it’s changing procurement office culture to practice empowerment of competent contracting officers so they can make decisions and act on their own.  This means delegation, eliminating detailed oversight, changing policies so the COs role is more independent and not require multiple levels of review and approval to act.  On the flip side of this is accountability for their actions and decisions.   Appropriate rewards and recognition for successful accomplishment also should accompany that.

I recently heard a CO say he had to obtain review and approval of six individuals to use a Labor Hour contract for a small dollar value action.  That included legal and policy office and finally went to the deputy SPE.

Yes, the Q/A review process needs to be changed for sure. I suppose it depends on the agency, but it's definitely a hindrance that slows the process down. That said, having more independent COs can only be a good thing as long as they understand the mission. Many of our COs have all the certifications and knowledge, yet they don't invest the time and effort to understand the mission of their client.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 5 weeks later...
On 5/3/2021 at 3:07 PM, ji20874 said:

I understand that in some organizations, contracting officers are so brow-beaten and so under the thumbs of their policy staffs and attorneys that they are never allowed to grow and blossom -- they are never allowed to make decisions.  Anyone wanting to change the culture in a contracting officer needs to look to see if there is any of this going on.  

I have witnessed this as well to the extent that it manifests as gaslighting for opposing views that are easily supported. "I just don't think you supported your case well enough..." I supported my case but it fell on def ears. I have a strong enough background to recognize when I am being gaslighted in contracting and I am disappointed to recognize that it is a tactic that is being used. Having to build a fully documented rock solid case for every miniscule decision you might make throughout the contracting process is also exhausting and time consuming. I have been punished with illogical and unrelated paperwork for not doing things exactly as someone in the review chain directed. If you do it my way, you only have to do this. But if you chose to do it your way, I need this, this and this. It's not that it can't be done. But if you dare to do it, it will be painful and time consuming for no logical reason. 

With regard to the original topic, I think there is a balance. If contract specialists get too comfortable relying on me for every little thing, I often answer their questions with questions. They come to you because it is easy and effective. They will not come to you if it is not easy or effective. "Where would you look in the FAR to find the answer to that question..." Help lead them to their own conclusions. By asking the questions, you can start to identify where their gaps and limitations are and perhaps provide them with training or exercises to fills those gaps. It is time consuming but half of our job as contracting officers is bring in the next generation of contracting professionals. Yes, I note that the original post was regarding CO's that don't know the basics and are not interested in taking it upon themselves to look it up. They just have not been conditioned properly. They are where they are. It is what it is. You have identified the problem. The solution is to meet them where they are and lead them to where you want them to be.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Guest
This topic is now closed to further replies.
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...