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Changing the role of contract managers

September 26, 2016 (Photo Credit: Jenifer Morris)
The role of today’s “contract manager” continues to change. How and why it is doing so depends on one’s perspective, but from the private to public sector it is converging.

At the federal level, contract managers develop and manage contract vehicles between both parties; interpret and implement the myriad laws and regulations required for inclusion; provide sound business advice in the execution of pre-award and post-award functions, use a wide range of common contracting methods and contract types; develop and/or review complex pricing arrangements; conduct meetings with contractors on sensitive and/or acquisition-related issues as an authoritative contractual representative when warranted; assist in the procurement of standard or specialized services, commodities and/or construction within a contracting office; execute and track deliverables until final contract closeout, etc. This traditional “cradle to grave” responsibility is (to the extent it wasn’t already) a growing role at the state and local public procurement level as well.  

Some government organizations, or the contract managers themselves, view their role as compliance and process enforcement, while others see it as much more. However, in going beyond traditional roles, should contract manager involvement start much earlier and be more comprehensive, including requirements definition, acquisition strategy and planning, spend analysis, source selection, supply chain management, project management, and the external relationships from beginning to end?

Indeed, the responsibility (and consequently, title) of those performing these functions varies greatly within the diverse private and public firms and agencies involved in procurement. 

It is not exclusively government contracting or procurement offices where roles can change. Private sector supply chain, subcontracts, purchasing or buying managers (and how they differ from each other or from public procurement and contract managers) is also evolving. The differences range from the subtle to clear, and terminology differs widely.

For example, everyone understands category management, as it’s the current administration’s highest-priority initiative. Yet it is a relatively new strategy in federal acquisition and to date far from fully integrated. It's also a longstanding principle in private-sector supply chain management and — to a significant degree — state and local procurement as well. The more simplified nature of local- or state-level government structures or the greater realization and expectation of cooperation between localities and greater economies of scale needed could be included as reasons for this. Thus, the question remains as to what the role of a contract manager is and where in the organization category management should lie.

In addition to new roles across the private and public sector, the role of technology is also changing responsibilities. Technology is freeing time spent on task-oriented activities (e.g., spend analytics, price or cost analysis, market research and analysis, solicitation and contract preparation, data collection and reporting, etc.) allowing for use of more subjective, “soft skills” and values (e.g., interpersonal, relationship building, communications, negotiation, judgement, project management, trade-offs analysis, risk management, leadership, integrity, communication, time management, general business, self-motivation, teamwork, and mastery of technology tools). New and enhanced support tools replace or blur traditional roles. As this trend accelerates, it will affect the number of professionals needed, the skill sets they require and how they are organizationally structured.  Does the contract manager of the future belong in the requirements, project, finance, legal or compliance office? Or is it independent of them all? In both the public and private sectors, process and compliance is important, but so is mission success and agile outcomes.

These changes may align today’s diverse job tasks, categories and position titles — contract, procurement, buyer, purchasing, supply chain, specialist/manager/administrator, etc. — to become synonymous. When combined with societal changes driving today’s careerists to change organizations more frequently (from agency to agency, company to company and sector to sector), the variety of title and job description terminology each organization uses should standardize. Today’s diverse “contract management” profession could merge along the same set of soft competencies, with varied technical skills dependent on specific employers. 

No one ever worked for an agency or firm that didn’t consider itself “unique.” Indeed, differences in mission and culture vary widely. However, regulating federal acquisition position competencies and knowledge via the Federal Acquisition Regulation and government training organizations (or state, local or agency-specific job requirements) including mandatory, introductory coursework, only limits the field of “uniquely qualified” and credentialed candidates, increasing staff shortages and difficulties for most employing government organizations. Today’s growing shortage of government acquisition professionals is a function of limited candidates qualified to work in unique, government-specific (not market- or competency-driven) job requirements.

A professionwide (both public and private sector) approach incorporating trends and uniform competencies beyond any single employer or government could increase the pool of talent available for all, creating a highly competitive market for training, beginning with university-level education, similar to other professions. Government will then be in step with industry, the educational programs offered and the candidate pool it produces. Any alternative, uniquely federal acquisition workforce approaches could increase human capital problems in the future just as they have in the past.

Michael P. Fischetti is the executive director of the National Contract Management Association. 
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