Being a Contracting Officer may be the most thankless job in government. Let’s just say it, it IS the most thankless job, period.
Unfortunately, the government acquisition personnel are often overworked and understaffed. Earlier this year, Peter Orzag, the former OMB Director, stated that while there is more than $500 billion in federal contracts, and while those contracts have doubled in size over the past eight to nine years, the acquisition workforce has generally remained constant. So there is an ever-increasing workload; responsibility for billions of dollars in purchases from sophisticated and highly aggressive commercial vendors across a staggering variety of industries; compensation far below private sector peers; constant scrutiny by their agency personnel, auditors, and Inspectors General; regular second-guessing or simple overruling by senior management; mocking by congressional representatives and senators as incompetent – what’s not to like?
But wait . . . there’s more. The thanklessness of being a Contracting Officer is further highlighted by the erosion of independence definitively described in “The Incredible Shrinking Contracting Officer” by John S. Pachter in the Public Contract Law Journal, Vo. 39, No. 4 Summer 2010. Every government acquisition professional should read this piece – and be prepared to be depressed. (It’s not pretty reading for the contractor community either.) And we haven’t even talked about the emerging and disturbing trend toward OIG investigations of Contracting Officers when an auditor cannot locate the acquisition file, even though the contract file may be a decade old and may have been transferred to other procurement personnel.
We are not addressing the “nonprofessionals” we have encountered who have never read the $400 million contract they administered for 10 years; nor are we talking to those who have made no attempt to understand what they are signing, leaving the rest of us to clean up the resulting messes years in the future. They are a lost cause. We are talking about the “professionals” – people intent on doing a professional job, with all the authority, few of the proper tools, and a whole lot of negative reinforcement. No wonder so many talented professionals forthrightly head to private industry at the first opportunity.
But the simple fact is that those of us in the private sector who work with Contracting Officers share the challenges they face. It does us no good to abuse the pressure or lack of resources to strike a tough deal or ram through a poorly crafted contract. Both sides will address the consequences at some point in the future, and the government has unlimited money, time, and lawyers. This challenge has only one professional and productive response, a response that furthers private industry and the taxpayers’ interests: Support Contracting Offices and their fellow acquisition professionals in their work.
It isn’t rocket science, people. It’s the basics. Make sure your Contracting Officer understands what you are selling and how you sell it. Don’t hide the ball. When in doubt disclose – disclose in writing. Document everything and keep the documents for at least the term of the audit-rights under the contract. Make sure the contract is clearly written, reflects the business deal, makes sense in your industry, and includes all the relevant documents. Read what you sign before you sign it. Read it again. Explain it to someone else. Then sign it. And save a copy of the awarded contract and all pertinent correspondence.
Where and when ethically permitted, get to know your key acquisition professionals. Understand their workloads and priorities. Understand the outside pressures they have to deal with, whether meddling management, hyper-aggressive auditors, or the wonderful benefits of congressional oversight. Make sure they understand not only your workload and priorities, but also your industry and issues. Go to their industry days and make sure they have other ethically appropriate but effective means to how your business sector works.
Contracting Officers’ roles will likely remain a frustrating mix of critical importance, limited support, and lots of intervention by third parties. Private industry has no choice but to do a better job on its end of supporting Contracting Officers in creating reasonable, defensible contracts. So yes, we end with this plea – Support your Contracting Officer.