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Background

Our leadership is concerned that we have too many warrants, too many people signing their own work. Audits indicated the number of warrants contributes to increased risk; however, the auditors provided no insight as to what the proper number of warrants should be, given our workload. I am now charged with reducing the number of warrants, implementing a workflow wherein (number of) contract specialists prepare and submit their work for review and signature by (smaller number of) warranted contracting officers. 

Request

I realize that the definition of "viable workload" varies. One 1102 may work full time on a single contract, compared to others that write (and/or administer) hundreds of contracts each year; however, in your experience, when reviewing and signing contract specialist work, how many contracts should contracting officers be able to handle each year? Do any of you have experience you can share, insights that can help me better plan the ratio of contract specialists to contracting officers, criteria to help determine staffing requirements and thereby best plan reasonable workload balance? Do any of you know of any research studies on this topic that I might read in order to help inform better decisions? I appreciate any advice you can share. Thank you! 

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50 minutes ago, MichaelJonReed said:

Audits indicated the number of warrants contributes to increased risk;

In your opinion, do you have CS who should not have a warrant? 

53 minutes ago, MichaelJonReed said:

the auditors provided no insight as to what the proper number of warrants should be, given our workload.

What type of contracting are you doing? Commercial supplies and NASA R&D are different things. 

55 minutes ago, MichaelJonReed said:

I realize that the definition of "viable workload" varies.

See above:

58 minutes ago, MichaelJonReed said:

how many contracts should contracting officers be able to handle each year?

Do they have their own workloads? Do they only manage reviews for the CS? Also see above.

 

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I think an organization only has too many warrants if there are people at the organization with a warrant who cannot/do not perform the work of a contracting officer well. You likely know your people and your organization better than any auditor does and based on your comments, it sounds like they did not justify their assessment (they likely just want to introduce more "levels" and bureaucracy into your organization because that's what they saw in other places). I would not be shy about questioning the auditors findings and conclusions - I have seen too many cases where an auditor or a reviewer, feeling compelled to write something, invents or creates a problem where there was none.

Also, put yourself in your people's shoes (and ask your leadership to do the same): if you were one of those people who was doing their job well, but losing their warrant simply because an auditor thought that more reviews and bureaucracy was a good thing (and leadership agreed with them), would you want to continue to work there if given the choice? What might that do to your morale to lose authority and responsibility despite not performing poorly?

Finally, if more reviews are necessary (which is certainly debatable) why can't a contracting officer review another contracting officer's work?

Bottom line: if the contracting officers in your organization are doing their jobs well, you don't have too many warrants. If they aren't, it shouldn't take an outside audit to fix it.

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3 hours ago, MichaelJonReed said:

Our leadership is concerned that we have too many warrants, too many people signing their own work... [I}n your experience, when reviewing and signing contract specialist work, how many contracts should contracting officers be able to handle each year?

There is no single correct answer. It depends on (1) the agency's mission and (2) the complexity and volume of the work.

When I started out as a GS-05 trainee in August 1974 at the USAF Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO), COs were GS-14s or GS-13s and journeymen contract specialists were GS-12s. The contract specialists had several years of experience as such. The average contract specialist was much, much more expert than the average CO today.

COs did not conduct acquisitions. Contract specialists conducted acquisitions. COs supervised the contract specialists, gave direction, made decisions and recommendations, reviewed files, and signed contracts, modifications, and other documents that required CO signatures. CO appointments were hard to come by.

After CO review, but prior to issuance of an RFP and prior to contract award in excess of a certain dollar value, a contract specialists contract files had to be reviewed by the Judge Advocate's office and then by "The Committee".

The Committee was chaired by a GS-15 and was staffed by GS-14s. First there was an administrative review by a GS-12, then there was a substantive review by a GS-14. The GS-14s reviewed every file, page-by-page, and made written findings and directed or recommended changes. COs could challenge directions and recommendations to the Committee chair. Unresolved issues were decided by a colonel (O-6) or by his deputy, a GS-16 (now SES).

Very large contracts that had to be approved by a command four-star or the Secretary of the Air Force had to be further reviewed by the Committee at the Air Force Systems Command headquarters.

In the late '70s and early 80s I was a GS-13 contracting officer at SAMSO in the Space Defense program office, which was headed by a brigadier general. I supervised the work of two contract specialists. My boss, the director of contracts for Space Defense, was a lieutenant colonel. He  managed two contracting officers. We had adequate, but not ample, clerical support.

It is my opinion that the idea of contracting officers being, in effect, working-level contract specialists who sign their own work, has diminished the status of contracting officers, degraded the contracting career field, and resulted in generally poor quality work.

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13 hours ago, Constricting Officer said:

In your opinion, do you have CS who should not have a warrant? 

What type of contracting are you doing? Commercial supplies and NASA R&D are different things. 

See above:

Do they have their own workloads? Do they only manage reviews for the CS? Also see above.

 

Thank you for your interest in my post. Your questions make me hopeful that you've got experience that can help. I'll answer your questions, grateful for whatever insight you can provide.

You asked if in my opinion, I have CS who should not have a warrant. No, in my opinion I do not; however, the teams I oversee are just a portion of the overall organization (140 people on my teams, out of 750 total).

My teams handle: IT systems and equipment (ranging from $1 million to $100 million), real property leasing (700 locations, CONUS, typically less than 20,000 sf), international programs (up to $250 million), education center support (construction <$10 million, support services up to $50 million), field support (up to 20-year, $500 million and higher).

Currently, we employ a mix of approaches; however, senior leadership seeks consistency, in particular driving toward a model where officers review and sign for specialists. 

I hope those answers provide the additional context you need. Thank you again for your interest!

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11 hours ago, Vern Edwards said:

There is no single correct answer. It depends on (1) the agency's mission and (2) the complexity and volume of the work.

When I started out as a GS-05 trainee in August 1974 at the USAF Space and Missile Systems Organization (SAMSO), COs were GS-14s or GS-13s and journeymen contract specialists were GS-12s. The contract specialists had several years of experience as such. The average contract specialist was much, much more expert than the average CO today.

COs did not conduct acquisitions. Contract specialists conducted acquisitions. COs supervised the contract specialists, gave direction, made decisions and recommendations, reviewed files, and signed contracts, modifications, and other documents that required CO signatures. CO appointments were hard to come by.

After CO review, but prior to issuance of an RFP and prior to contract award in excess of a certain dollar value, a contract specialists contract files had to be reviewed by the Judge Advocate's office and then by "The Committee".

The Committee was chaired by a GS-15 and was staffed by GS-14s. First there was an administrative review by a GS-12, then there was a substantive review by a GS-14. The GS-14s reviewed every file, page-by-page, and made written findings and directed or recommended changes. COs could challenge directions and recommendations to the Committee chair. Unresolved issues were decided by a colonel (O-6) or by his deputy, a GS-16 (now SES).

Very large contracts that had to be approved by a command four-star or the Secretary of the Air Force had to be further reviewed by the Committee at the Air Force Systems Command headquarters.

In the late '70s and early 80s I was a GS-13 contracting officer at SAMSO in the Space Defense program office, which was headed by a brigadier general. I supervised the work of two contract specialists. My boss, the director of contracts for Space Defense, was a lieutenant colonel. He  managed two contracting officers. We had adequate, but not ample, clerical support.

It is my opinion that the idea of contracting officers being, in effect, working-level contract specialists who sign their own work, has diminished the status of contracting officers, degraded the contracting career field, and resulted in generally poor quality work.

Vern, I'm honored that my post caught your attention. Thank you! I would guess you've heard this before, but among the current crop of 1102s, many like to say, "You're not a real 1102 until Vern Edwards replies to your post on Wifcon."

The history you shared reminds me very much of the work environment in which I started, a Department of Veterans Affairs regional contracting office. The senior contracting officers in that time and place oversaw teams of specialists, much as you describe. Most of the work was still paper-based at that time, with hand-written, red ink corrections that literally bled off the pages produced by inexperienced 1102s. I was one of them, still grateful today for all that I learned within that crucible. 

In any case, it's an honor to have caught your attention. I hope that all is well with you and yours. Thank you for your massive contributions to our career field. Best and highest regards always, sir! 

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On 3/17/2022 at 9:09 AM, MichaelJonReed said:

IT systems and equipment (ranging from $1 million to $100 million)

Having once worked in a high-functioning organization of the USAF that procured these, I can help here.  We won an award at the AFMC level for our work one year competing amongst other systems contracts shops.

As a GS-12 CS, you could get a $5M limited warrant based on supervisor discretion by passing a written board exam after 2-3 years’ experience in the shop.  To go from that to an unlimited warrant, you had to pass two boards and have no less than 3 years’ experience in the shop to get a warrant.  There was the written warrant board that was standardized across all of AFMC, and then there was the oral board chaired by our GS-15/O-6 Chief of the Contracting Office (known outside USAF as a “Procurement Director”).  A GS-13 warrant candidate would normally speak with a GS-14 supervisor during midterms or performance appraisals about their intent to go to the board, and would then be allotted some time to pursue this.  You kept your workload but would have your assigned CS prepare much of your work at the same time.  You spent time in self-study after work and were allowed time for group board cohort study during work.  The process to get the warrant took 3-6 months.

How else can I help, @MichaelJonReed?

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52 minutes ago, WifWaf said:

Having once worked in a high-functioning organization of the USAF that procured these, I can help here.  We won an award at the AFMC level for an our work one year competing amongst other systems contracts shops made up of 50 people or less.

As a GS-12 CS, you could get a $5M limited warrant based on supervisor discretion by passing a written board exam after 2-3 years’ experience in the shop.  To go from that to an unlimited warrant, you had to pass two boards and have no less than 3 years’ experience in the shop to get a warrant.  There was the written warrant board that was standardized across all of AFMC, and then there was the oral board chaired by our GS-15/O-6 Chief of the Contracting Office (known outside USAF as a “Procurement Director”).  A GS-13 warrant candidate would normally speak with a GS-14 supervisor during midterms or performance appraisals about their intent to go to the board, and would then be allotted some time to pursue this.  You kept your workload but would have your assigned CS prepare much of your work at the same time.  You spent time in self-study after work and were allowed time for group board cohort study during work.  The process to get the warrant took 3-6 months.

How else can I help, @MichaelJonReed?

Thank you for sharing your experience. I appreciate your help to broaden my perspective. 

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19 hours ago, MichaelJonReed said:

 however, in your experience, when reviewing and signing contract specialist work, how many contracts should contracting officers be able to handle each year? Do any of you have experience you can share, insights that can help me better plan the ratio of contract specialists to contracting officers, criteria to help determine staffing requirements and thereby best plan reasonable workload balance?

A consulting company developed a workload model over fifteen years ago.  It used governmentwide data to set a standard point of reference based upon average number of actions per each 1102. Then it was enhanced and employed at multiple using specifics - complexity of actions, extent of competition, type of action (delivery/task order, simplified acquisition, commercial/non-commercial, contracts by various categories, etc.)  as well as number of 1102s versus other job series, ratio of direct contracting personnel versus overhead like policy and IT systems staff, and so on.  The model allowed agencies to compare themselves with other comparable agencies.  

But I doubt it would be helpful now without substantial updating in todays acquisition environment.

I also started out in an environment similar to Vern Edwards and WifWaf where a warrant got issued only to individuals with extensive experience and demonstrated expertise.  But I don’t see we will ever revert back to that type situation.  Buying in the future will be much different that in the past and actions which used to takes months will be done in hours or days.  Of course this excludes major type acquisitions but those numbers are few compared to the majority of actions. The process won’t allow for extensive reviews and approvals by multiple supervisors or boards.  The system will require very prompt awards although they will be less complicated.  I think we’ll continue to see more COs than less.

I also don’t think too many people with warrants is the problem.  Rather it’s people that lack experience, training, and knowledge to properly perform.  The entire 1102 field is in such demand for even mediocre performers, good people continuously move around for promotion.  Then we end up with GS - 13/14/15s with less abilities than GS 12s from the past.  

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My experience has been mostly already shared by others. Where i'm at now is my first small office and a little different experience for me. With the exception of our procurement techs who do simplified work, everyone is a GS12/13 and all of us have warrants. When hired you start with a $4 million warrant for the first year. During year two it usually goes up if you have performed well, stays the same if you have performed mediocrely, and if you perform poorly you get assigned to entering CPARS, processing closeouts and similar clerical tasks. 

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39 minutes ago, Vern Edwards said:

I'm not sure what "when hired" means. Does it mean hired as an experienced contract specialist or when hired out of college?

In the context of my post I mean experienced. I dont know many people who could graduate college and start at a GS12. I suppose one could have very limited experience and make that grade. The thought in my office is pick no hire over a mediocre hire. I think my office should have some developmental path to start as a newbie but we don't operate that way.  

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A bit of a different angle on this: A few years ago I found myself in a situation where I had 24 direct reports. Some with warrants, some without. It was too much, obviously. During that time I did a little internet research on how many people a supervisor could realistically supervise. It won't be surprising that the consensus is that it depends on what is being supervised, but if you consider contracting to be intellectual and complex work like I do, then the 6-8 direct reports is a rule of thumb. Beyond that is too many. The articles on this subject that you'll find online aren't contracting specific, but I do think 6-8 "feels" right to me, based on my experiences. Your mileage may vary...supervising an unwarranted contract specialist is a different challenge than supervising a fully trained, confident, and competent GS-13 or 14.

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@KeithB18 I remember Al Gores and Clinton’s reinventing government initiative.  They advocated a flat organizational structure with a recommended 12:1 employee:supervisor ratio.  This is 50% greater than the consensus opinion you noted.  Supervisors need to spend time coaching, mentoring, assessing, and growing employees.  If a supervisor is the sole warranted CO for those employees or at least the CO for a large share of actions above their warrants, a supervisor can’t properly review their work, direct necessary revisions, sign their actions, and manage them.  

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44 minutes ago, formerfed said:

@KeithB18 I remember Al Gores and Clinton’s reinventing government initiative.  They advocated a flat organizational structure with a recommended 12:1 employee:supervisor ratio.  This is 50% greater than the consensus opinion you noted.  Supervisors need to spend time coaching, mentoring, assessing, and growing employees.  If a supervisor is the sole warranted CO for those employees or at least the CO for a large share of actions above their warrants, a supervisor can’t proper review their work, direct necessary revisions, sign their actions, and manage them.  

Totally agree and one thing that I think has been lost over the years is how a supervisor actually used to teach a junior employee how to do the job. We've outsourced all of that and think that because a person has been to 4 or 5 Management Concepts classes they are "qualified." It takes a lot of time to train an employee--we've basically given up that mission, to the benefit of the training companies and the detriment to the average citizen. 

I would note that I don't spend enough time training and coaching my folks, so I live in a glass house here. 

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@KeithB18

I recently finished a special project to help rewrite more than a dozen position descriptions. Our Human Resources classifiers mentioned that a position will not be classified as a supervisor unless supervisory duty is performed at least 25 percent of the time. The rule of thumb they used for count was no more than four direct reports.

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On 3/16/2022 at 3:47 PM, MichaelJonReed said:

Our leadership is concerned that we have too many warrants, too many people signing their own work.

Some quotes, from which I urge you all to draw your own conclusions.

From FAR 1.102-4(e):

"Contracting officers should take the lead in encouraging business process innovations and ensuring that business decisions are sound."

FAR 1.602-1(b):

"No contract shall be entered into unless the contracting officer ensures that all requirements of law, executive orders, regulations, and all other applicable procedures, including clearances and approvals, have been met."

From FAR 1.602-2:

"Contracting officers are responsible for ensuring performance of all necessary actions for effective contracting , ensuring compliance with the terms of the contract , and safeguarding the interests of the United States in its contractual relationships." 

From FAR 1.603-2:

"In selecting contracting officers, the appointing official shall consider the complexity and dollar value of the acquisitions to be assigned and the candidate’s experience, training, education, business acumen, judgment, character, and reputation."

From FAR 15.405(a):

"Taking into consideration the advisory recommendations, reports of contributing specialists, and the current status of the contractor’s purchasing system, the contracting officer is responsible for exercising the requisite judgment needed to reach a negotiated settlement with the offeror and is solely responsible for the final price agreement."

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

"Some contracting officers regard themselves as representatives of the defendant, 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."

From "Postscript II: The Role of the Contracting Officer," by Vernon J. Edwards, The Nash & Cibinic Report (2010)

"While on paper COs are powerful figures, in reality there are many socio-organizational constraints on their autonomy and on the role that they play in the acquisition process. Not the least of those factors is their lack of expertise. With few exceptions, the image of the autonomously decisive CO is a myth. Yet we believe that a CO who is respected for his or her knowledge, experience, and skill can exercise considerable, perhaps even decisive, influence over the decisionmaking process. That is, a CO can play a meaningful role, not by relying on formal authority, but on the power of reasoning, explanation, and persuasion. The ABA Section of Public Contract Law's upcoming conference would do well to ask how the Government can develop a corps of competent COs capable of exercising their formal authority. That is really the question of the day."

From "Postscript II: The Role of the Contracting Officer—Addendum," by  Professor Ralph C. Nash, Jr., The Nash & Cibinic Report (2010):

"A CO must (1) be able to assist requisitioners in preparing work statements that allow effective procurement, (2) be as aware of procurement policies as agency staff personnel, (3) be able to separate legal advice from policy advice masquerading as legal advice, and (4) be fully able to deal with accounting and pricing issues. These are a lot of skills but traditionally our best COs have had them all. See our previous discussions in The Contracting Officer: Defining the Role, 10 N&CR ¶ 58, and Postscript: The Role of the Contracting Officer, 13 N&CR ¶ 15.

But even with all of these skills, a person will not be able to fulfill the FAR role if he or she does not have the necessary personality trait of feistiness. A good CO has to be able to deal effectively with all of the other Government people that Vern describes but also has to strongly represent the Government's interests in dealing with contractors. This means negotiating to get the right price from the contractor most likely to perform well. It requires a strong person with considerable self esteem to effectively negotiate with contractors and agency personnel to arrive at the best business decision for the agency. It's a great job for such a person but a clerical job for one without the necessary skills and personality."

From The Quality and Professionalism of the Acquisition Workforce, Report, House Armed Services Committee, May 8, 1990:

"The contracting officer is the fulcrum of the acquisition process."

From "Motivation Reconsidered: The Concept of Competence," by Robert H. White, Psychological Review, Vol. 66, 1959:

"As used here, competence will refer to an organism's capacity to interact effectively with its environment. In organisms capable of but little learning, this capacity might be considered an innate attribute, but in the mammals and especially man, with their highly plastic nervous systems, fitness to interact with the environment is slowly attained through prolonged feats of learning."

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