Program Managers: How to Get Your Contracting Officer to Care
A First-Person Approach from Lorna Tedder
Program Managers frequently complain about not being able to engage their Contracting counterparts. “Why can’t I get my Contracting Officer to care more about getting on contract faster?” they ask.
Let’s assume that the problem really is that Contracting personnel aren’t feeling any sense of urgency. Here are two proven strategies that may work for you, based on my observation that the closer someone is to the battle, the more interested they are in moving fast.
The two best ways to bring Contracting personnel into the fray and—even better—incite them to solve acquisition problems with you are:
- Show how important Rapid Acquisition is to others—show them the need in an up-close and personal sort of way.
- Show how important Rapid Acquisition is to them and to their progeny—show them the threat.
No, these suggestions won’t work for everyone, but if you can energize a significant number of your workforce, your entire organization will benefit, as will the customer.
Showing the Need
The best way to show the importance of Rapid Acquisition to others, specifically the customer/end user/warfighter, is to drag your Contracting folks kicking and screaming to see what they are buying, to talk to the people needing those products or services, and to demonstrate to them that they are doing more that pushing paper around their desk or words around a screen. You might also be surprised that you don’t have to drag them anywhere—they’ve just never been invited and actually want to understand what they’re buying.
When we want Industry to understand our requirements, we as Government hold Industry Days, allow site visits, show briefings charts and road maps, explain why we need Industry on our team. Why not try something similar with the Government team, including Contracting, Policy, legal staff, cost/price analysts, financial managers, Small Business reps, etc.? Not to brainstorm Acquisition Strategy meeting or dig into market research, but so non-program managers have a better idea of what is needed and why—and how their efforts fit into the big picture.
This doesn’t have to be a big deal: it can be as simple as bringing your Contracting team and their staff support into a conference room for an hour or two and showing them the problem that must be solved and who it affects. Show them video of successful—and unsuccessful tests. Show them how hardware fits together and how the guys on the flight line can take it apart and put it together in no time flat and let your Contracting Officer try it, too. Make it a show and tell. A petting zoo.
For example, when I headed the Rapid Acquisition Cell, I took all my new team members within weeks of their arrival to visit our primary customer, touch what they were buying, talk to the guys using it, tiptoe around the aircraft’s interior, and watch real-time tests. They got the feel for how what they did every day contributed to our customer’s safe return to family. Everyone working with me got the “tour”—and they came back to the office drinking Rapid Kool-Aid. I also invited support staff and bosses, and those who attended were so much readier to help when we had a problem. My technical team was always happy to oblige because they knew what a difference it made for Contract Specialists to wrap their minds around how words on paper equated to life-or-death results.
Showing the Threat
To show Contracting personnel how important Rapid Acquisition is to them personally—including to their children and grandchildren’s generation or beloved family and friends in the distance future, you have to explain the stakes to them…make it personal. I believe that every Acquisition professional from division chiefs down to summer interns need to be briefed on the threats currently facing the US, specifically China and National Security issues.
I’ve sat in on enough unclassified “freak out briefings”—briefings candid enough for attendees to feel a little freaked out by new or more extensive information than they’ve heard before—to know that there is readily available information for the workforce at the lowest level to understand what’s at stake if we can’t move fast enough to stay ahead of our adversaries. Not only do I think that everyone in Acquisition should attend mandatory threat briefings—or “highly encouraged” if not allowed by unions to be mandatory–but allow A&AS Contractors to attend as well. (Their contract scope probably fits.) It’s important enough. Brief at the highest classification level that’s appropriate to your program and their workload.
When a Contracting Officer understands the real threat of not moving fast enough, whatever that threat may be, it’s much harder to be complacent or consider their daily efforts to be “just a job.” If they understand that no one else is coming to save the day and that it’s up to them, they have a better understanding of a program manager’s or end user’s sense of urgency.
It’s not enough to tell your teammates in Contracting that something is needed. Show to them why.
Show what the threat is and the risk of not being engaged.
The best way to cure a sleepless night—yours and theirs–is to take action.
Actions You Can Take
- Make a list of all functionals and staff who support your procurement efforts. Include Contracting Officers, contract specialists, price/cost analysts, procurement analysts, policy chiefs, competition advocates, legal counsel, etc.
- Invite the decision makers (Contracting Officer, Legal, etc.) to key meetings, tests, facility tours, threat briefings, etc. You can invite the rest of the team to the same meetings or fewer, depending on their clearances, schedules, and involvement with the acquisition.