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The Contract File



As many of you know, I was an auditor for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) for over 33 years. About 32 years of that was spent reviewing the contracting practices of federal agencies. To enhance my ability to review federal agency contracting practices, I picked up an M. S. in Procurement Management in the 1980s. I wasn't your typical auditor. I had an extensive knowledge base in my field of work―federal contracting―and much of my time was spent with my face in agencies' contract files. How many contact files? In the thousands. How many contracting offices of federal departments and agencies? Many! They were located somewhere between Seattle, San Diego, Atlanta, and Long Island, New York. Speaking of island, yes Rock Island too. Can't seem to remember anything in Florida though. Maybe I forgot.

When I reviewed contract files, I tried to understand the person who put them together, who wrote the documents, who filled out the forms. Was the person conscientious? Was the person thorough? I did that with the contract files at each agency contracting office I visited. Most times, I was reviewing a stack of contract files from more than one contracting officer. From the quality of the contract files compiled by different contracting officers, I began to get a feel for the contracting activity and its leadership.

Now, let me tell a little story about contract files and the people that complete them. I may have told this one before since I like it a lot. Many years ago, I was reviewing contract files at the headquarters contracting office of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). I had been there more than once over the years. While I was reviewing the files at HUD, one contracting officer stood out. His files were pristine, well documented, beautifully written. As I read the files, I learned that the contracting officer was an attorney and a Certified Public Accountant. The files were so well done that I never had a question to ask the contracting officer. What was there to ask? It was all in the contract files. So, I never met him.

Years later, I moved into a new home in a new development in the Washington, D. C. area. One day, a new neighbor was walking up the street with his wife and they stopped to introduce themselves. He explained that he had been a contracting officer at HUD. I don't remember what he said but I recognized the fellow. Since I never met him at HUD, it wasn't by his appearance. He was the fellow that compiled the pristine contract files that I had reviewed years earlier. As he talked, I thought to myself: "This guy is going to be a great neighbor." And he was.

Here's the point. Your contract files, whether they are paper or electronic, tell people who you are. Is your justification and approval a "cut and paste" job or is it clearly written for a specific procurement? Does your negotiation memorandum explain the history of the procurement up to the time of the contract action? Are your contract modifications documented and explained? Do they track to the original contract? Can your written documents be traced to an audit, a technical evaluation, a contractor proposal, a contract? These aren't just forms and documents required by law or regulation. They reflect You and Your work. They are You. At least, that is how I always used them.

One more thing. Do you enjoy your work? Even if you don't, does it interest you?

Let me tell a little story again. Over the years, I met some of the same contracting officers more than once at different stages of their careers. Sometimes, they were at the same agency. Sometimes, they had moved to a different agency. I wondered how their careers progressed. We're they burned out? Anyway, I reviewed this fellow's contract files years earlier and I was about to do it again. I sat down to chat. The fellow had been promoted to a branch chief. Initially, the fellow appeared to be worn down by the years of contracting work. Then I stepped out of ignorant auditor mode and began to speak his language―contracting. He was like a young contract specialist again. Through the years, he maintained his enjoyment for his work.

Oh, you say you are a Head of a Contracting Office and no longer compile contract files. Wrong! The quality of those contract files reflect on you too. If a trend of ugly contract files reared their heads, I began to question the leadership. Same thing for the contracting officers' attitudes. Are your contracting officers burned out and lifeless? If so, that reflects on you. In the end, your contracting activity's contract files and contracting officers' attitudes reflect on you and your leadership qualities. You would be surprised what contract files say about you.

One last story. Back in the early seventies, the word "Watergate" was a highly charged word. Watergate, led to the resignation of a sitting U. S. President and was one of the lowest points in our Nation's history. While that was going on, I was participating in a review of a major source selection and was reviewing source selection files. All of a sudden, I found a page that contained the phrase "[Program name] Watergate." (I've deleted the program name intentionally). Of course, I spent a good deal of time on that file until I was satisfied the page was a joke and had been mistakenly included in the file. I put my thumb in the file to remember where the page was. Then I went to the office where the technical evaluator sat. I opened the file to the page I mentioned, placed the file on the evaluator's desk in front of him, and told the evaluator that I would be back in a few minutes. On my return, the file no longer contained the page.

Some things do not belong in contract files.


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Great blog!!! I know people often think I "overdo" it when I document my contract files and to tell you the truth sometimes I get discouraged and wonder if it even matters. Thank you for reminding me that it does matter; and that even if the contract gets filed away in a box, on a shelf, in a cold, dark warehouse, there is a little piece of me in that file and it mattered to me. Maybe it will never be destroyed (by some fluke) and 200 years down the road someone will find the contract pages, yellowed with time and then decide it needs to go under a glass at the Smithsonian...or maybe not (better get my head back down to earth).

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Over the years, I had the GAO liaison at agencies pull contract contract files out of storage. So, there is life for contract files after closeout.

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I am entirely new to the world of government contracting. Currently I am pursuing an M.S. in Procurement and Contract Management. The first course that I choose to take is in contract law. For an upcoming project my professor wants us to research and analyze an appellate decision. Do you have any recommendations of cases or topics that were landmark decisions in the world of contracting? A current landmark case or current source of controversy would be great too. Thanks for your help.

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Excellent insight! I hope you don't mind if I forward this information to my team members. It's not to justify my being anal, just to make them realize there's a reason to be anal!



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