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Thinking About The Tool

Posted by Vern Edwards, 16 July 2009 · 2,248 views

"Automated" contract writing systems have been around for a long time. I recall early versions, like the Air Force's "AMIS" system, being in use since the late 1970s or early 1980s.

DOD's Standard Procurement System (SPS), Procurement Desktop Defense or PD2, has been in use for over a decade and is now in version 4.2. I have never had to work with that system. All I know about it is from (a) what I have read in GAO and DOD IG reports, and (b) anecdotes from users with whom I have spoken. The information from all is mainly negative. The users with whom I have spoken have all hated PD2. Indeed, it has been my experience that the persons who are most directly affected by such information systems⎯the people who must input data into the system⎯almost always hate the systems, and the system advocates and managers spend a lot of time engaged in public relations and salesmanship. The SPS Program Office has a media relations point of contact and posts a list of rewards they have won in recent years at its website.

Advocates for PD2 sometimes call it a "tool." When I use a tool I don't like to think about the tool itself. When using a hammer I'm thinking about the nail and the structure it is going hold together. But as tools become more complex they themselves become objects of attention and drive process design. You do the work a certain way because the tool requires that you do so. I know that when I drive our beat up old Hesston mowing tractor in a hayfield on the ranch, I'm often thinking about the awful thing itself and wondering how I can wreck it "by accident" so we can talk the boss into buying a fancy new tractor, one with a CD player, like the one our neighbor bought and likes to show off, waving as she zips by the fence line, driving with one hand, while I'm out among the mosquitoes trying to unplug the conditioner.

There are a number of different jobs on a cattle ranch. In our part of the West we have buckarooin', which in other parts of the country is called "cowboyin'." That's the best job. You get to ride around on a good (if sometimes ornery) horse in wild country chasing cows and being generally irresponsible. People become ranchers so they can buckaroo. Next is "hayin'," which means cuttin', rakin', balin', and stackin' hay. Nobody likes hayin', but you have to do it. And then there's "mechanicin'," which means fixing your broken down equipment. Mechanicin's a pain and promotes cussin'. It's worse than hayin', because if you're mechanicin' the hayin's not getting done, which means that hayin' season is going to last longer, which means you can't get back to buckarooin' as soon as you would like.

Tools are supposed to help you get the job done. The better the tool, the better the job result. The job is the point, not the tool. You don't really want to think about the tool, because if you're thinking about the tool that usually means that the tool isn't working properly. So when a tractor breaks down you're not hayin', you're thinking about fixing the tool, which means that the job isn't getting done. Some tools are so complex that people start making careers out of thinking about the tool. Complex tools change the job.

I hate systems like PD2, even while I recognize that they are useful. It seems to me that what's happening is that people who should be thinking about contracting are spending too much time thinking about how to use the contracting "tool" and make it work. Each new "fix" forces them to think about it some more. Instead of writing change orders, the poor CO is trying to figure out how to get PD2 to kick out a change order in reasonably short order. The change order isn't the focus anymore. The focus is the change order writing tool. See the Wifcon Contract Administration discussions thread: Use of SF 30/Change Orders.

Maybe I've got this all wrong. Maybe I don't know what I'm talking about. Maybe SPS is wonderful and has made for better contracts and more efficient contracting.

But it doesn't matter whether I've gotten it wrong or not, because we've got this tool and we're never going back to the days of handcraftsmanship.

Oh well, back to the SPS FAQs page.

You have hit the nail on the head. As a current user of "the tool" it is clear to me that the position of contracting officer is now very simply, the one who processes in PD2. I don't know if my current organization ever had the contracting types that you hearken back to in your writings, but it is clear to me that many of my current 1102 colleagues are perfectly happy doing the sedentary work of pushing paper and playing procurement cop from the computer. Instead of hustling to ascertain the facts of the situation, negotiate and issue a change order, the contracting officer all too often plays the martyr and complains something was not done "by the book" without ever doing any real constructive work. They are viewed as an obstructionist and not someone who could be considered a trusted business advisor. Aside from making PD2 work properly, there is also waiting on the financial management folks to receive funding and issue an obligation authority in order for PD2 to be able to kick out the desired SF30. This takes away further from one's credibility due to the delay.
Let me tell you, it takes some time to become good with SPS. But, once this happens it should be a given so that KO's move on to doing the real work - making agreements using sound business judgement. SPS is really not a difficult system, but it is really not an efficient tool either.
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Vern - I couldn't agree with you more! This is a great article. However, I have an alternate theory to your statement, "because we've got this tool and we're never going back to the days of handcraftsmanship." I predict that ?the tool? will eventually evolve into a beast so cumbersome that it will totally breakdown and we will be forced to return to handcrafting an honest-to-goodness contract. You know, at home, I have finally reached the point where I have gone through so many ?new and improved,? ?guaranteed never to fail? vacuum cleaners that I?ve given up; I ripped out all the carpet and now use a broom ? old fashioned, sweeping back and forth method!! I think my theory may be founded, don?t you?
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Matt and rdy:

Thanks for the comments. rdy--your theory might be sound, but keep in mind that Microsoft Windows hasn't broken down yet, and that's as awful as it gets when it comes to complexity and cumbersomeness. (I'm a Mac user.)
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Vern - Another thought - A lot of us entered the 1102 field after PD2 (SPS) was implemented and know no other way to assemble a purchase vehicle (contract, order, BPA, etc). I have always worked for DOD Army offices. Why does the Army at two separate installations and the Army CofE operate under different processing applications?

In one office I worked in PD2 directly interfaced with the PR&C and all supporting documents electronically and was trackable from PR&C initiation through logistics through RM to contracting to contract/order award. Distribution to the vendor/contractor, RM, logistics and Government customer was made by e-mail. RM then took the contract/order and certified release of the funds through their software program.

In another office I worked in, the PR&Cs and all supporting documents were furnished in hard copy and by e-mail, the PR&C loaded into PD2 manually by the contract specialist and distribution to the vendor/contractor, RM, logistics and Government customer was made by e-mail. RM then took the contract/order and certified release of the funds through their software program.

In my current office, the PR&Cs and all supporting documents are furnished in hard copy and by e-mail, the funding is certified in another software system which does not interface with PD2 thus requiring the PR&C to be manually loaded by the contract specialist in both PD2 and the funding program and then the contracting officer must enter this funding program to certify release of funds once the contract/award is released. Distribution to the vendor/contractor, RM, supply and Government customer is made by e-mail.

If all of the Army's RM, logistics and contracting systems interfaced, the process would be much more efficient by eliminating duplication of efforts by various Government personnel disciplines. I do not think that going back to the time of manually typing everything in triplicate on a Selectric III is the way to go.
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I don't think we should go back to manually typing everything. I just don't want 1102s thinking about loading PR&C into PD2. That's clerical work. Clerks should do it. I prefer that contract specialists spend their time thinking about something like how to use probability methods for cost uncertainty analysis when structuring predetermined, formula-type incentives.
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