Disrupting Acquisition Blog
What’s Wrong with Making Contracting Shops Compete?
Every few months, someone comes up with this crazy-brilliant new idea to have buying offices, aka Contracting shops, compete for workload to see who can get the job done best, with “best” usually defined as “fastest.”
If only it really worked like that.
A few years ago when I was a Govvie, I ran a buying office known for its innovative contracting tools and quick turns. We started as a lean, mean team working miracles and defying Procurement Acquisition Lead Time (PALT) stats. Our multiple customers loved us and sang our praises loudly and often.
As with most Contracting shops who live and breathe rapid acquisition, our dependability was rewarded with more work. Not more people, just more work. The accolades were great and for the most part, we didn’t have any slackers or at least not for very long. It was a high-tempo organization where I intentionally pushed people toward their next assignment by 15 months to keep them from burning out, but they left with a resume full of experience in things like 10 USC 2373, oral proposals, omnibus Broad Agency Announcements, and creative pricing arrangements.
Then something disturbing started to happen.
Our multiple customers were so happy with how fast we could award a contract—yes, a FAR contract, not even an Other Transaction Agreement—that they “brought home” work they’d farmed out to other buying organizations over the years. Our workload grew, and I found myself working a lot of unpaid overtime, even though technically it wasn’t legal to work overtime. The work was expected to be done, regardless, and I never liked to let the warfighter down.
One year, near Christmastime, I was working on a Friday afternoon when I’d promised to be home already. My kids had both gone to college and moved twice since I’d taken a weekend off to visit them a day’s drive away. They’d each moved from an apartment I’d never even seen because as both a supervisory CONTRACTING OFFICER and a SUPERVISORY Contracting Officer, I couldn’t get the work finished in 40 hours or near that. We were very much in demand but couldn’t get extra personnel to cover the extra work. If anything, I kept losing manpower slots to various budget drills where the entire overarching organization had to “peanut butter spread” manpower cuts across every buying office after weeks of “sausage making” because for some reason, the Acquisition career field loves using food analogies.
The phone rang on this particular Friday afternoon when I’d already put in 75 hours since Monday morning. At first, I thought it was the kids calling me. They’d complained that I never visited them any more so they’d come home to spend the holiday break (aka intervention) with me…only I was still at work because there was talk of yet another shutdown and we were speeding toward a deadline.
The kids weren’t on the phone. Instead it was an O-6 at another military installation, and his organization worked collaborative projects with one of my high-priority customers. He’d heard about us, about how fast we were, and he’d already talked to my customer about my buying office taking on a procurement of theirs instead of his own buying office. I wasn’t authorized to turn down workload that came from one of my customers, so I chatted about what they were working on and how far along they were so I could determine if it was truly my workload or if he was being sneaky. (He was being sneaky.)
“Not far along. I’m going to need a timeline from you to show how long it will take to get on contract. Then I want you to work up an acquisition strategy and write the Request for Proposal. Take it all the way to the point of releasing the RFP and if you’re the fastest, you get to do our work!”
He was downright excited. Me? Not so much.
“Er, what do you mean, if we’re the fastest?”
“Oh. We want you to compete for the work. I’ve talked to two other buying offices, including my own, so I’m going have all three of you compete to see who can get to RFP release first. Then the winner gets to take on the source selection.”
“Whoa, what? You want three buying offices to duplicate effort?” Hmmm, did fraud, waste, or abuse define that luxury best?
“Uh…I want you to compete.”
“You want us to compete for…more workload?”
“Well, yeah. You get to prove how fast and innovative you really are!”
Yeah, I think I called the colonel “Dude.” I get really informal when I haven’t slept much.
“Dude. I know we’re fast and innovative. I don’t need a competition to prove anything to anyone. But what’s in it for us? You’re technically not my customer, and you have your own buying shop.”
He genuinely didn’t seem to know what to say. Like we’d be tripping over our own feet to take on more work!
“Or,” I said, trying to fill the silence, “did you mean you’re sending your Contracting Officer and a buyer here to work it under my organization and use my strategic sourcing vehicles I’ve set up?”
“Oh, so new manpower slots? Colonel, I don’t think we’d have time to create two new manpower slots through Personnel, then advertise them, hire—which may take maybe six months—and get them ramped up to take on workload that you want two other buying offices to do as well.”
“I-I don’t have manpower slots to send you.”
“So…basically you’re looking for free resources to do the work your buying office has been allotted manpower slots to do.”
Yeah, I get super candid when I haven’t slept much.
“But it’ll be the most interesting thing you’ll do this year!”
Not even close, but I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. Though it was way down on the list, it was work that my team and I would probably really enjoy, but I was already surviving off less than six hours of sleep a night, and unless he had manpower to send me, I had nothing more to give. Besides, he’d already been allocated more slots to handle his workload than I had in my entire buying office. I didn’t tell him that wasting my time “competing” was insulting to all three buying offices duplicating effort, none of which had manpower to waste on seeing who could be first to release an RFP.
I was nice, as nice as I can be through clenched jaws, and suggested sweetly that he go back to the Contracting shop paid to support him and that they were welcome to use any of my templates or copy anything we’d done. As soon as I hung up, I gathered my things and headed home to see my kids. But not before the phone rang as I was walking out.
Note: Don’t answer that phone when you’re walking out of the office. No good can ever come of it.
This time, it was one of my other high-priority customers’ program director. I’d already explained in a staff meeting with him two hours earlier in the day that getting his organization’s contracts awarded before funding got pulled was going to be tough. He knew I wasn’t a “Cap’n, I dinna think the engines kin tek it” kind of person and that I was genuinely worried and planning ahead. I figured this phone conversation was how to prioritize his workload since that’s what I’d said we needed to do next, just in case.
“Hold on. I’m going to conference you into my call with a buddy of mine.”
The buddy turned out to be a program director at another Air Force base that had nothing whatsoever to do with his program office or any work at all done at our installation. My customer wanted to figure out a way to bring that workload under him so that he could do his buddy a favor by having my team blast it out quickly. I could not believe it. Had we not just had a meeting two hours earlier about how tight manpower was to take care of his priorities this fiscal year? I spent a full hour listening to his buddy woo me to take on work that had nothing to do with the workload we were paid to do.
“Is he sending us people to do the work?” I asked when my customer’s buddy dropped off the line.
“No, his buying office is under-resourced so they’re slow. I was telling him about how fast my Contracting personnel are, and if you can do this for him, he’ll be really impressed.”
Probably a good thing he couldn’t see the face I was making. Someone had left a “Program Manager Voodoo doll” on my desk as a joke, and I think that was the day it lost its stuffing from being beaten against my desk and maybe stomped on a few times.
His buddy’s buying office was under-resourced? Really? Really? REALLY?
“Okay, yes, I can take on his pet project, but I don’t have room for it, so tell me which of your upcoming contracts the warfighter doesn’t need and I’ll plug it in there. Or if you want, maybe we could send one of our upcoming contracts to his Contracting shop to be awarded while I take care of his project for you?”
Funny, but he wasn’t willing to let any of his own critical projects slide to make sure the workload and manpower synced up. They never do.
Having your busy Contracting shops compete to see who can win more workload is never going to work unless timely manpower –by that, I mean you must account for the time it takes to get slots approved and to hire qualified personnel because, heh, that ain’t fast either—is part of the competition. Seriously, if I’d been allowed to compete and win manning for my Contracting shop based on how fast I could turn a contract action, I would’ve had enough people that I could’ve taken off at least one weekend in a year.
Everywhere I look, I see under-manned buying offices and Program Managers who want to shop for the fastest buyers. There are buying offices that are structured to take on work for a fee as well as consortia that can fill the gap, but the buying offices being asked to “compete” for more work generally aren’t among them. Competing sounds like a great idea, or maybe ideal, but in reality, I’ve never seen it work or welcome. Until you bring manning to the competition as the prize, you’re only going to have a Contracting Officer glaring through the phone at you.
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are those of the authors only and do not represent the positions of the MITRE Corporation or its sponsors.
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