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But can we keep them?

Posted by Vern Edwards, 06 January 2009 · 1,120 views

I recently participated in a conference at which a former senior government official bragged about the bright young people that the government is recruiting into the contracting career field. Here is a story that might give you an idea about what a challenge it is going to be to retain the best of the new recruits.

My wife used to manage a contracting shop in a federal agency. One day she met a young student intern, whom I'll call "Molly Sue," who was working in another contracting shop. My wife was so impressed that she immediately tried to recruit her. Well, Molly Sue joined my wife's shop, and that young woman turned out to be a top-notch contract specialist. Now in her late twenties, she is smart, energetic, has an MBA, and is generally very impressive. This is a young woman who absolutely has to have a challenge.

Well, my wife left contracting to join her agency's IT organization, and she was soon joined by her young friend. Molly Sue had been working on the most complex IT contracts and had impressed the right people in the IT organization, including the Chief Information Officer. Looking for a challenge, Molly Sue decided to be recruited. Well, less than two years later, at the age of 28, Molly Sue was chosen to manage the biggest and most important information technology project in the agency, one that is crucial to the agency's future. Why did she get that assignment? Because she gets things done.

This all came to mind because Molly Sue just held an open house for her project, which was attended by all the bigwigs in her agency, including the agency head. My wife brought me a copy of the brochure that her young friend prepared, which describes the project mission, goals, and objectives, and identifies the project sponsors, which include several agency vice presidents and the deputy chief finance officer. Oh, and Molly Sue has arranged for interested parties to sign up for email announcements of project progress, upcoming events, and potential changes that might impact their work.

When I learned that Molly Sue had been offered the assignment I was concerned. I consider all IT projects to be "death march" projects, doomed to disappoint or even fail. (The failure rate among IT projects in government and industry is very high.) But so far so good. As she told me, "I'm still 50/50 on our targets but I'm sure we'll get there... somehow, someday, and exactly as planned." (Ah, youth. But it reminds me of Hannibal, standing in Gaul and looking at the Alps toward Italy: "We will either find a way or make one.") Assuming she succeeds, or even comes close, Molly Sue will probably be running the place in a few more years. Modestly, she attributes her success to her "awesome (i.e. technically capable, independent, with a high work ethic) team."

Our government obligates more than $400 billion per year on contracts, and Molly Sue is just the kind of person we want negotiating, awarding, and managing our biggest and most complex and risky contracts, like the one for the Coast Guard's Deepwater Program. But I regret to say that the job of contracting officer in most agencies just isn't challenging enough to keep people like Molly Sue interested for long.

But why not? America has a contracted-out government. Almost everything is being done under contract. So why aren't contracting people running the show? There are several reasons, but perhaps the main reason is that agency managers have conspired to turn contract specialists into technicians and data entry clerks instead of experts and key decision makers. I have been to meetings at agencies in which contractor consultants briefed agency higher-ups about acquisition strategy and source selection plans while the contracting officer sat quietly, providing little or no input. I have seen RFPs for major programs that were prepared by contractors. (I've even been hired by those contractors to help develop RFPs.)

This situation has been coming for a long time. In a 1987 report entitled, The DOD Contracting Officer: A Study of the Past, An Assessment of the Present, and Recommendations for the Future, an ad hoc committee of the American Bar Association's Section of Public Contract Law concluded as follows:
Given the importance of the contract in the acquisition process, the government official who presides over the contract should have the authority and status commensurate with the job. That official is called the contracting officer. The Committee believes the quality of that authority and that status are in jeopardy.
Twenty-one years after that report, we have reached a low point in the status of the contracting officer. And until that status is raised to reflect the importance of contracting to our nation's objectives and security, we won't be able to keep the Molly Sues that the government attracts with its false advertising about the status and excitement of the contracting career field. They will go elsewhere as soon as they learn the reality of the contracting cubicle and that the biggest challenge they will face on a day-to-day basis is getting FPDS to accept their input.

But we're not going to see a change in contracting officer status until we get true leadership from contracting management and until the workforce shows that it can make a positive difference in how well contracts serve the nation. Until those things happen, enjoy the Molly Sues while you can. They aren't going to be around for long.