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Separating fact from hype in today's contracting environment

Apr. 30, 2014 - 12:57PM   |  
Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association.
Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association. (File)

In government contracting, as elsewhere, some issues can take on a life of their own. It’s easy to get caught up addressing their resolution without first validating their existence. Let’s understand the problem(s) in government contracting we’re trying to solve before moving toward solution.

Failure occurs when delivery is late or doesn’t meet the anticipated need for various reasons (cost, timeliness, quality, adverse effect on mission, etc.). At its root, contracting is project management and relationship management. Both parties agree to work together, divide responsibilities, and work together toward an end result. When this process breaks down, no one is happy, fingers are pointed at each other, and the customers (i.e., citizens) are negatively impacted.

A recent survey found the most frequent reason for failed government projects is contractor overpromising. After that: Government changing its mind after award; poor communications between government and contractors; improper government oversight; and poor, inadequate, and/or incompetent project staffing and mismanagement by contractors, including the collaboration between primes and subs. Actual conflict between the government and contractor wasn’t rated as big an issue.

Terminology is important. “Government contracting” usually refers to the solicitation, selection, award, and management of government contracts by contracting officers and their industry counterparts, but as just mentioned, contracting involves the need to focus on fundamental program/project management and relationships within and between both sides of this contractual relationship. Government and contractor emphasis on rules, regulations, fairness, procurement lead time, compliance, and ethics are all important. However, to get anything done, a program management culture, with all the included competencies, is required. The Professional Services Council recognized this in a recent recommendation to reconstitute the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to reflect the need for centralized federal government program management guidance, not just those managing the contracting relationship.

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Such project management leadership must include paying attention to:

• Ensuring all project work elements are coordinated, planned, and executed (limiting and controlling included work);

• Ensuring timely completion (including activity/task definition and sequencing) and planning, estimating, and controlling costs (including resource planning and cost budgeting);

• Ensuring project results meet the requirements, including quality assurance and control;

• Organizing and managing the project team, including training;

• Aligning project objectives and goals;

• Defining roles in the project and assigning project team members to those roles;

• Linking people (including team members and stakeholders), ideas, and information throughout the project life cycle, including timely generation and collection of information along with proper dissemination and archiving;

• Identifying, analyzing, and properly responding to project risks (opportunities and threats);

• Acquiring products, services, or results from external sources, including subcontractors and the government;

• Properly managing buyer/vendor relationships; and

• Managing vendor obligations.

Understanding a comprehensive project management methodology isn’t seen in congressional or regulatory initiatives, but belongs in agency or company level guides and manuals and training, class curricula, and professional certification requirements. Acquisition-related professional membership associations recognize this need to improve project management expertise, so they don’t become contractual disputes. Agencies must learn to understand and respond to earned value management reports, as well as the technical aspects of their mission.

The Department of Defense understands this, as evidenced by the focus on Better Buying Power “tradecraft” initiatives, but is now faced with an uphill struggle with budget and political priorities and pressure for immediate improvement. However, most other agencies define any acquisition (of which project management is core) as the responsibility of the woefully staffed contracting (1102) workforce, with project results reflective of that limited view. Many contractors similarly must come to understand this primary responsibility and acquire the talent and expertise to execute the projects commensurate with the energy expended on business development and legal compliance.

Let’s separate facts from hype. Concerns ranging from contract overruns to source selection strategies point back to the larger issue of missing, or non-existent, basic professional competencies. Address this root cause before it becomes a contractual one. Address the disease, not the symptom. Success stories abound when government contractors and agency oversight responsibilities focus on core principles of project management and all its supporting elements, to include contracting. Since implementation of our government’s mission has largely become outsourced, its effectiveness will improve and great results will materialize when fundamental project management skills are brought to bear.

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