Michael P. Fischetti, J.D, CPCM, is executive director of the National Contract Management Association. Previously, he was the acquisition executive and head of contracting activity for the Defense Department's Military Healthcare System. Fischetti has more than 30 years of leadership, operations and policy experience across multiple government, civilian and industry sectors. (Jenifer Morris)
While it may be some time before it becomes clear what went wrong in developing the Healthcare.gov website, some themes emerged from a recent Time magazine article, such as program leadership and management. This should be of no surprise to those involved in acquisition today. According to Time, there was an apparent lack of clear lines of authority, including project structure and a feedback mechanism.
Problems with contract delivery and program failure often result from lack of leadership, which incorporates program management issues such as proper staffing and communication. For while the attention in government contracting often focuses on lead-time to award, including selection strategies and their results, program office activities can’t be overlooked. These include early, upfront requirements planning (well before soliciting contractors) and the management of subsequent actions necessary to meet contract schedule. Statute and regulation focus on the contracting process, but should emphasize the more significant (but harder to address) leadership and program management activities occurring outside the formal contracting phase.
Some agencies have more formalized program management culture (and requirements) than others, but generally most could do better. Senior leadership must be open to various points of view and be willing to accept responsibility and feedback when “the emperor has no clothes.” Again, in the case of Healthcare.gov (from what we know), vital program status was either not reported or not received from those in a position to mitigate risk. Thus, milestone dates and important program adjustments were not made until it was too late.
“Bridging the Gap” aligns program and contract management structure, expertise, and best practices to ensure the right people are in the right place and communicating in an effective way to achieve success. It is an organizational culture that properly organizes various program elements for success while emphasizing each individual’s best efforts. Leadership of such a program structure empowers qualified professionals with the necessary information, tools, resources, and responsibility and then “gets out of the way.” Leadership also holds them accountable for results, serves as the program “champion” and top supporter from inception through final delivery and success, and protects the program from the (unfortunately) many internal and external forces that seem to prefer failure. Top leadership must be open and approachable to receiving timely and relevant program status, be willing to make responsible value-add decisions, and provide timely feedback as necessary.
Much is made of the professional competencies for contracting managers, but more emphasis on other closely related competencies is necessary for program success—particularly program management. In many agencies, contracting staff often move into program positions because of the superior acquisition and business qualifications they possess, including the importance of teams and program management knowledge. Contracting competencies or the “body of knowledge” emphasizes these necessary skill sets. Yet in government contracting, movement the other way, from program to contract management, rarely occurs.
Previous acquisition legislation promoted program tools such as an earned value management. However, the best software and accurate data reporting is valuable only if:
1. Organization (government and contractor) leadership is accepting and willing to react positively or proactively to bad news;
2. Program managers understand and react to the information presented; and
3. Program and contracting managers work effectively together to implement the necessary change, to include managing the government/contractor relationship.
Executive leadership and “Bridging the Gap” between contracting and program management is a total solution that promotes a culture of organizational excellence. It’s more than a mission statement; it’s an embedded alignment that improves performance.