Dec 31 2009

Power in Pairs

Are your contracting officers and program managers doing what it takes to achieve mutual success?

Tension arises between program managers and contracting officers because neither has ultimate authority yet they have overlapping roles.

The program manager directs the work on an information technology project; the contracting officer procures tools and services to complete the project — an increasingly tricky role given government buying regulations. Each has supremacy within his or her realm. This dynamic forces them to communicate and cooperate to reach their goals.

"Any party that tries to go it alone puts the program at risk," says Stan Soloway, former deputy undersecretary of Defense for acquisition reform and now president of the Professional Services Council of Arlington, Va.

It's the ultimate IT partnership, and feds and industry experts say it can and does work well if each party invests effort to:

1. Understand the regulatory compliance climate.

"My job isn't to keep program managers from getting what they want. It's to allow them to get what they need within the regulatory guidance and the rules that we have to live within," says William Thoreen, contracting officer for the recently awarded EAGLE buy at the Homeland Security Department. (EAGLE stands for Enterprise Acquisition Gateway for Leading Edge solutions.) "We have myriad regulations and policies. It's too much to expect a program manager to know all those things, so they have to rely on us to help them navigate that world."

2. Communicate early and often.

To keep everyone working on the Education Department's Federal Student Aid programs on track, both the relevant acquisition staff and project managers must be present at all major project milestones, says Terri Shaw, FSA chief operating officer.

3. Believe in life after "no."

Sometimes an expected outcome proves unfeasible. When that happens, the program team must be prepared to explain why it can't meet its business goals, and the contracting team must explain why it can't procure the requested goods or services. Both teams need to suggest options.

A contracting officer's job is not to "always tell the program staff that they can't do something"; instead, the contracting staff must help the program team find a way to accomplish its goals within compliance, says Andrea White, vice president for contracts and business support at the consulting firm Robbins-Gioia of Alexandria, Va. "The answer 'no' is not acceptable."

4. Accept alternatives.

Even if the expected outcome turns out to offer different benefits than originally envisioned, the team needs to thoroughly examine what's on the table before seeking new options.

"I viewed my job as a contracting officer to be the business broker or business adviser who helped the program manager craft an acquisition strategy that met the requirements of law and regulation but also leveraged the power of competition and harnessed industry," says Chip Mather, a former Air Force acquisitions specialist and now partner in the government consulting firm Acquisition Solutions of Arlington, Va. "The program manager should seek out the contracting officer and say, 'Here's what I'm trying to do, and I need your guidance and advice.' Otherwise, the program manager might spend five or six months drafting a statement of work, getting the money and related approvals, only to be told the project violates numerous regs and must be redone."

5. Bring the procurement and program teams together early.

At Homeland Security, the procurement shop works with DHS organizations on advanced acquisition planning to identify future projects and activities that leverage the knowledge of both groups. "This allows us to be proactive and stand alongside them as they make decisions and set their strategy, rather than have them come to us at the 11th hour after they've already established in their minds what their strategy is," Thoreen says.

6. Provide training.

"It's important for program managers to have training in contracting so they understand the value of competition, transparency and supporting socioeconomic goals," says Debra Sonderman, director of acquisition and property management and the senior procurement executive at the Interior Department.

"Contracting officers have business-management skills and the capability to do things like market research and help define requirements," she says. "They should not be viewed merely as 'order takers.' "