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Everything posted by KeithB18

  1. All the best Vern. I met you briefly at an event several years ago...thank you for your contributions to this career field. One quick story, literally from this week. My political boss, who is brand new to government, noted that the proposals we received in response to one of major programs seemed to regurgitate the RFP back to us. I said, "Oh yes, this endemic in the field, the essay writing contest." And then I pulled out an article I have that you wrote in 1994 and said, "It's been a problem for awhile." (Also note the RFP was written before I joined the organization!)
  2. Fair point. This vendor couldn't articulate the why, but I probably could have pushed a little harder for that understanding.
  3. The b.s. evaluation factors and lengthy proposal preparation instructions do more to hinder transparency of evaluations than any other factor, in my view. (And possibly that's the whole point.) When we pick evaluation factors like, "Technical approach to the statement of work," especially for professional services, we get a proposal that regurgitates the statement of work. It's nearly impossible to identify meaningful differences between offerors. Even factors like "Management and Staffing Plan" are challenging--how many members of the evaluation team even know what a good management and staffing plan looks like? That said, disappointed offerors don't have a relationship, post-award, with the agency. If you've won the contract, proactive communication is a good practice for relationship building. Identify issues early as well. Keep the CO informed. Don't ask for a bunch of administrative modifications. (In a previous job, a major government contractor asked me, repeatedly, for administrative modifications that I told them were unnecessary.) Ask for feedback on your performance outside of the CPARS cycle. To the extent you can, be visible. In the pre-covid days, a contractor I worked with would stop by my office once or twice a month to check in. Don't overdo this though--I also had a situation where the contractor stopped by every day, and I was eventually like, "I've got things to do here." There is really no substitute for an actual, IRL relationship with someone. If you have deliverable deadlines, meet them, or better yet, beat them. Plan for the government to take more time reviewing your deliverable than they say they need.
  4. Touche'. They'll try to automate the entire contracting function eventually...smart contracts, etc.
  5. These three bullets really resonated with me. For the first bullet, I've been consistently surprised how reading something about an unrelated-to-contracting topic can influence my thinking about my contracting job. It happens all the time--something I read in the New Yorker or some such publication ends up having direct relevance to a project I'm working. Just today, in regards to the second bullet, I was writing an email to a colleague that was mildly critical of a plan that I came across. I rewrote a key paragraph several times to make sure I captured the idea correctly. It landed perfectly--she immediately understood my position. The process of writing that helped me understand my own position. The last bullet is where I see a lot of challenges. I work with a decent amount of young-ish 1102s and there are a few of them that want the respect that being a professional accrues, without putting the work into becoming a professional. Becoming a professional is hard and it isn't a task that is ever fully complete. Vern commented that he's 75 and "still hopelessly ignorant." I'm 41 and much behind Vern on the ignorance scale (or am I ahead of Vern? Point is, Vern has forgotten more about contracting than I know), but a little less so every day.
  6. I don't think you can characterize something that is a necessary part of one's job as a "delay." Negotiating fee is part of a contracting officer's job. If that is a delay, then everything a contracting officer does is a "delay." I would want be careful in making generalizations based only on my experience, but negotiating fee for R&D is often pretty easy. You do a weighted guidelines (and as Vern points out, you can make those say whatever you want), propose that as a counter offer and then meet somewhere in the middle. Maybe you get a little more than you wanted or vice versa. Again, my experience only, but a lot of people involved in R&D are involved much more for the R&D than they are for the profit. The really big payoffs for R&D projects isn't the profit on one particular contract, it's the possibility of commercialization and/or future sales to the government. You gonna walk away from a deal for 0.5% on profit? Unlikely for either party. As a result, you can typically negotiate fee fairly quickly. Maybe it takes a week because you're working on a bunch of other stuff too, but I wouldn't call that a "delay" either.
  7. My agency has been using Q&As for a few years now. An example is here: https://sam.gov/opp/fb3fe7ea18b942d7b05bc060a9588f1a/view. I will say I made some mistakes in that solicitation and learned some lessons. You'll probably be able to spot some flaws. The Q&A is on page 21. I think I got the idea from the Source Selection Bootcamp. You may or may not be surprised how many contractors could not reasonably answer the questions, even with weeks of time to prepare an answer. In that regard it worked.
  8. 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.
  9. @Vern Edwards "Utopia of Rules" Are you referring to this book by David Graeber? https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00MKZ0QZ2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 It's certainly not for everyone--Graeber identified as an anarchist and was involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement (he died a couple of years ago)--but I found myself nodding along with it routinely. (Admittedly, I was sympathetic to his argument at the outset.) I wouldn't say this is his best book, but it certainly is relevant for us working inside the bureaucracy.
  10. 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.
  11. I didn't think this warranted a new thread, but I have taken on Vern's challenge to read widely about relational contracting. I came across an article titled, "The Many Futures of Contracts: Moving Beyond Structure and Safeguarding to Coordination and Adaption" the other day. The article is full of jargon and I think of limited use, but it does have some insightful nuggets. I thought this one was important, "With increasing transactional complexity (e.g., interdependence between parties), we should not observe more complex contracts; instead we should see more clauses in contracts that give broad decision rights to one party or specify procedures for centralized or consensual decision making." It struck me as something that was worth thinking about.
  12. Another roadblock I keep coming to, mentally anyway, is that most of our large and traditional business partners are as ill-suited for relational contracting as the Government is. They are as stuck in existing model just as deeply as we are. Even if you could find a partner willing to engage in the forming a relational contract, I can just imagine the corporate lawyer saying, "Where is clause X, Y, or Z?" I might be overstating that, but I routinely have big contractors ask me for pointless modifications.
  13. @Vern Edwards I just read the Simple Additive Weighting paper and I have to admit that some of the math was over my head. It was never a strong suit of mine. One thing that did resonate with me, even though the authors probably didn't intend for this to be a take away, was that they defined the criteria they were looking for in the person (Table III, page 513). This alone is more thinking than many or most people do when hiring Federal staff and certainly far beyond the thinking most people put into "Key Personnel." Insofar that we do think about key personnel, it usually comes down to credentials: experience and education typically. So if a CO is going to include key personnel as an evaluation factor, it makes sense to think about what are the characteristics of the key personnel that will assist to produce quality performance. I have to admit, where I've used key personnel, I've never thought about it, nor have I asked any of my program officials to think about it. And if the CO and program can't come up with characteristics of the key personnel they are looking for, maybe don't use key personnel. Lastly, the authors note in the conclusion, "Besides, some criteria could have a qualitative structure or have an uncertain structure which cannot be measured precisely." And I think this is evident in their own example, e.g. "team player" and "strategic thinker."
  14. Yes sorry. The bullet points relate to things that I consider FAR-compliant.
  15. I do. First, my agency, NSF, has a somewhat broader OTA authority than most. So where I can get organizational approval to engage in an "other arrangement" transaction, I can design a solicitation that fully embraces the it. This is/has been difficult and where the "But the policy!" objection comes in. Anyway, your mileage will vary on your ability there; mine certainly does. I'm about 2/3rds the way through Contracting in the New Economy with plans to finish this week. Here are some thoughts. (Please don't take these as some sort of gospel, these are just ideas I've had.) - When you engage in relational contracting, you have to identify a willing partner. That means a partner that understands the difference between a relational contract and a transactional contract. This can (and should) be incorporated into evaluation criteria. Vern calls for asking specific questions rather than asking for narratives (and we've done some to a some of this, it really works!), but there's nothing stopping us from asking questions about an interested party's willingness, knowledge, and ability to engage in relational contracting. I suspect most offerors won't "get it" and fail the test very quickly. - Where you have the ability to engage in a two-phase down select process, you could contemplate the first phase as assessing the offeror's basic capabilities in the designated field or subject and their ability/willingness/knowledge of entering into a relational contract. Phase II could be an oral presentation designed to assess an organization's compatibility with the agency in terms of values, norms, and strategic objectives. - CICA is going to make you consider price, but you could signal a willingness to make use (proper use?) of the relevant changes clause. "Within the general scope" gives you quite a bit of latitude and a smart CO and program official can write a scope for a medium term requirement where almost all subsequent changes will be "within the general scope." It might be worth making this a part of negotiations with the selected partner. You could come to some shared understanding of what the changes clause means and handle changes swiftly, efficiently, and fairly. - It should be obvious that you want to carefully select which service contracts require a relational contract. The book cited above has a chapter on it and I think it is pretty solid. It comes at it from a commercial perspective, but I think it fairly easily adapted for government purposes. - I say that because I can contemplate certain folks complaining that you are engaging in personal services or inherently governmental functions. To that I'd say that the personal services ship sailed long ago (almost every service contract has all six of the personal services indicators) and there are 20 items the FAR says are likely inherently governmental. We've had contractors working for us longer than many or most Feds. It is more accurate (and honest, imo) to say that they work for the government than it is to say that they work for the contractor. So lean into it and make the relationship work for you, the contractor, the agency, and the taxpayer. But pick your opportunities carefully. I may have some more thoughts as I finish the book.
  16. This resonated with me. I can recall doing a complicated cost analysis a couple years ago for a 10 year cost reimbursement service contract. I built a spreadsheet with 13K lines on it and I got to the point where I thought to myself, "This is absolute non-sense. Useless. How can I ensure that I never have to do this again?" And that's one reason I'm so interested in putting into practice relational contracting.
  17. There is an undercurrent of a debate going on at my agency that I thought was interesting enough to share. It usually goes something like this: Me: Here's this new thing I would like to do. I've researched the applicable policy, guidance, and laws and the new thing I'm trying to do appears consistent with those things. We don't have local policy on the matter because we've never tried or thought to try this new thing. Someone More Important Than Me: Why don't we have policy on this? You need to write the policy before you can do this new thing. Me: Do you have specific concerns with the thing I'm trying to do? If so, I can incorporate measures that will mitigate those concerns. Important Person: Yes I do. You need a policy. I'm sure almost everyone here has come across something similar; it's the bureaucrat's way to avoid risk and pursue comfort. But I started thinking about where innovation comes from. And in almost every instance I can think of, it comes from practitioners, not policy. I don't say that to irritate policy folks. In a perfect world, policy would expand the art of the possible in the contracting career field. In reality, policy types get stuck with Acquisition Career Management, hosting and tracking training events, auditing and responding to audits, ensuring FPDS data quality, and a million other things of varying importance. I also don't want to let practitioners off the hook. Most 1102s aren't interested in expanding the art of the possible either. Many have the same or similar excuses as policy--we all know what they are. So my answer the question is that practitioners create most of the innovation that happens inside our field, and the policy folks catch up later. (So when I have the conversation above with my "betters" I'm always left a little flummoxed as to how to effectively respond.) One of the bigger (biggest?) innovations in our field over the past several years was the Highest Technically Rated at a Fair and Reasonable Price evaluation schema championed by John Cavadias (and many others I'm sure) at GSA. As I understand it, he had the idea as a practitioner, researched it and convinced GSA to embrace it. So what is your feeling? Where does innovation come from?
  18. @Vern Edwards I'm guessing you did all this virtually...did you find that effective? Back in January 2020, I started a similar project. I put together a nine course syllabus and asked our most junior employees to go on that journey with me. The classes consisted of about 50 pages of prior-to-class reading (Formation and Administration factored heavily into this reading), a short lecture by me on the topic at hand, and then an open discussion. I created discussion questions to prompt conversation. I had big plans to do a subsequent course on more advanced topics. (I've attached the syllabus here in case anyone is interested. I would note that I have no pedagogical training.) It was going pretty well, I did four lessons, the last one was on March 11, 2020. Then the pandemic hit. I was overwhelmed, especially early, in how much time I was spending in video calls so I suspended the class indefinitely, pending return to building. And nearly two years later, we have not returned to the building. In the intervening two years, there has been plenty of discourse on virtual vs. in person learning. One of my biggest intentions with my class was to get these younger COs talking to each other about contracting and I would maintain, to this day, that the best way for that to happen is in person. But that ship may have sailed. So anyway, if you did it virtually, any lessons learned on how to make that most effective? Basic Contracting Education Syllabus.docx
  19. @Vern Edwards Several months ago I came across a 2006 letter from the Procurement Roundtable that was sent to OFPP regarding Relational Contracting. Somehow, and I'm not super proud to admit this, that was the first I had heard of it. I have thought about it a lot since then and spend this afternoon reading the articles you cite in your post. The current state has not improved since 1999; in fact it is probably far worse. A growing number of people working as 1102s today received their professional education in contracting after 1999. The "Orthodox Ideas About Service Contracts Not Suited to Long-Term Relationships" have further calcified in the bureaucracy. I hear them regularly, typically in some form of "Why can't they define their requirement?" We've been trained to demand precise specifications up front without ever asking ourselves if that is even possible. What a mistake. It has all sorts of obnoxious knock-on effects. "They want to raise the ceiling again!?!" Facts and circumstances will vary, but what if that is a sign of a success rather than a sign of financial and program mismanagement? E.g. We did not anticipate four years ago that we would need to fully integrate two-factor authentication into our IT security systems and it wasn't free. The contractor was able to integrate it successfully, on-the-fly, even working within a staffing structure that was developed four years prior. Great job everyone! More and more I think we need a comprehensive re-imagining of what Government procurement can be. (Financial assistance, BTW, is in similarly poor shape.) However, rather than problems being solved, they are proliferating. (Check out this publication from yesterday about research security...good grief: https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/010422-NSPM-33-Implementation-Guidance.pdf) It's no wonder that the average taxpayer doesn't understand or appreciate what government does. Government procurement is a gated community and the 1102s aren't even gate keepers. We are the traffic cops inside the gates tasked with (superficially) enforcing ever more draconian traffic laws. Maybe it is just the date, but sometimes it feels like we are in the dying days of the republic. Government procurement is just one piece of the structural failure. ProcurementRoundTable.pdf
  20. I think you'd have to look at why it is taking that long. It very well could be that the requirements for putting together a procurement package are too complex or the tasks are misallocated. A lot of contracting offices make the program offices write the acquisition plan, which I think is crazy. Of course the program office is going to struggle to write a procurement document! I've also seen requisition packages rejected because they were not accompanied by pencil whipped documents, which creates unnecessary delays. In those cases, contracting is unsuccessful. On the other hand, there is sometimes a lot of debate and disagreement in the program as to what should actually be procured. I have seen this a lot in our IT function--there is a cohort that wants to modernize existing systems and there is a cohort that wants to maintain the existing systems. Both parties have relevant points, though I fall in the former (I'm oversimplifying the controversy, of course). But in controversies like that, there's only so much I can do as a CO to push the project. I'm not an IT expert and I don't have to live with, necessarily, the consequences of doing the former vs. the latter. In these sorts of cases, I can't quite put the blame on the contracting function.
  21. I have thought a lot about this, especially since I got into management around 2013. I used to measure the crap out of PALT. I had a beautiful spreadsheet that would calculate the allotted PALT a specialist had to accomplish a given task. The allotted time was based on our local PALT allowances. I was able to say things like, "Contract specialist A, on average, delivers awards 10 days ahead of the allotted PALT." But it ended up being a meaning-free effort. Contract specialist A worked mostly on simplified acquisition, exercising options, adding incremental funding, and the like. I was certainly happy the work was getting done "on-time" but it doesn't say much about how effective contract specialist A is, nor do the aggregate results tell you much about the effectiveness of the entire office. I changed my approach after coming to that realization. What I concern myself with most these days is ensuring my office writes solicitation procedures that sets the evaluation panel up for success. We've embraced oral presentations, limited essay-writing type proposals, and conducted advisory down selects. As someone said above, the length that an evaluation should take depends. But within the circumstances and context of an individual procurement, there are "smart" things we can do to reduce the chances we end up in evaluation hell for a year. So I kind of come down to this: if you're going to measure it, solicitation release to award is probably best. It does set up some perverse incentives (they've been mentioned, reluctance to enter into discussions, etc.). So does every other way to measure it. Lastly, in the context of research and development, PALT from solicitation release to award doesn't make a lot of sense. If you are using BAAs, you may be engaging in process which includes a concept paper submission followed by a full proposal. Then you may seat a merit review panel, potentially of external experts. PALT isn't a measure of effectiveness in that context (If it ever is).
  22. I had my whole organization take the class in October 2019. The most common piece of feedback is what Don typed above. I was disappointed that those folks missed the point, to say the least. I'd guess that less than 50% of the 1102 community actually wants to do more than cut and paste. (And sometimes cutting and pasting is fine; but it is never very interesting or intellectually engaging.) I thought the class was good to very good. Our instructor could have done a better job making it more of a conversation--there were long periods where he just read the material to us. That said, I enjoyed it and thought the focus on "how to think about source selection" was insightful.
  23. My initial interest was a scenario that I think is specifically prohibited, "operational delays." Depending on your appetite for risk, even if you thought you had a 90% chance of prevailing at GAO, you may choose to settle, if settlement were a real alternative. So the settlement offer would be something approximating what GAO would tell the agency to pay when the agency loses a protest. Another scenario that I'm thinking about is a situation where an agency writes a solicitation provision that it can't comply with but doesn't realize it until after proposals are received. But really I just wondered if it was possible or ever came up before.
  24. If anyone is interested, while I was researching this morning, I found a reference to "Fedmail" in the RedBook chapter 3. "Occasionally, an agency may pay money to protestors to withdraw protests simply so that the agency may proceed with its procurement operations. This practice is known as “Fedmail.” GAO, ADP Bid Protests: Better Disclosure and Accountability of Settlements Needed, GAO/GGD-90-13 (Washington, D.C.: Mar. 30, 1990), at 8, 30; Maj. Nathanael Causey and others, 1994 Contract Law Developments—The Year in Review, 1995 Army Lawyer 3 (1995), n. 50. Typically, the payment is for bid protest preparation expenses, including legal fees. GAO/GGD-90-13, at 31. Public policy favors the settlement of disputes, and agencies may settle protests and pay damages in the form of bid protest costs.71 Comp. Gen. 340 (1992). GAO does not oppose monetary settlements that reimburse a protestor’s bid preparation costs if an agency determines that it likely will be held responsible for such costs and is unable to correct the procurement. GAO/GGD-90-13, at 31. However, GAO stated in GAO/GGD-90-13 that there is no basis for any settlement that an agency may offer solely to avoid operational delays resulting from a protest." So it seems like it is allowable in the right circumstance.
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