The Power of the Pen
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
Whether you attribute it to Voltaire, Churchill or Ben Parker (Peter's uncle in Spider-Man), we've all heard the popular saying "with great power comes great responsibility" and nowhere in the Federal space does that ring more true than in the hands of the only people who can obligate the Government; Contracting Officers (COs) - or KOs as they're called in the USCG or USN. The authority to negotiate and enter into contracts on behalf of the Government means that COs/KOs definitely have the power of the pen. And it's that very responsibility that they've been entrusted with that can sometimes create so many rifts in the Acquisition community. But why is that, when Acquisition is the consummate team sport? 🤔
In a word; trust. And I think there are a variety of things that can erode trust between those that are empowered to execute the Government's procurement processes and those that are stakeholders. One issue that creates a trust deficit is a lack of confidence from Program Managers (PMs) in the capability of the CO/KO. In order to become warranted as a CO/KO, a Contracting professional needs to obtain certifications through formal training and demonstrate successful progression in terms of knowledge mastery and practical experience. However, that perfect nexus doesn't always materialize. I'm sure there will be some COs/KOs that will not like hearing this ... but I believe it's true (as do many like myself who have been in the business for 25 years or more) ... that the demand for warranted Contracting professionals outpaces supply and many Federal agencies have to sometimes fleet people up into those roles before they're ready. When people are thrust into positions with high-levels of power, without always having the benefit of the time and experience that would best prepare them for the responsibility that goes along with it, an environment of fear and doubt is sometimes created among the customer base.
Yet another challenge with regard to building trust is that PMs sometimes wonder whether the CO/KO who is going to take the precious funding they've secured, through an onerous budget planning process, to outsource their needs, is truly looking out for their best interests as a dedicated business advisor. This is where the difference of opinion and friction comes into play. If the PM doesn't trust the CO/KO about important issues like contract type, solicitation approach, evaluation factors and source selection methodology, or the overall maturity of the procurement package, the sparks will inevitably fly. PMs and others who serve as requiring officials, sometimes think that COs/KOs act as judge and jury and hide behind the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) as a means of defending decisions that they want to make in a vacuum. And at the heart of those disagreements, there is usually a concern on the part of the PM or requiring official about whether the CO/KO is willing to put skin in the game.
PMs often feel like their CO/KO counterparts want to absolve themselves of any risk at all and COs/KOs usually feel quite the opposite; that they're being asked to take on all of the risk since contract execution can make or break program success. I've had the opportunity to be on both sides of the equation so I can say that with confidence. Both forget that they are co-stewards of the tax-payer's dollar and that the Federal agency they work for actually owns the program. They are both there to steer it in the right direction and have an equal role in delivering capability for the operators. Industry partners can also have concerns about whether COs/KOs are really crafting the right procurement strategies to properly leverage the market or simply using the easiest methodologies to get contracts done fast or to claim some form of compliance credit. That lack of trust between Government and Industry can really prevent a procurement from being successful, which jeopardizes mission outcomes.
Being a Contracting Officer can sometimes feel like a thankless job. The world of work is very challenging, with a dense, but fluid, regulatory framework to navigate using a myriad of complex processes, centering around politically-sensitive topics, and occurring in a pressurized, milestone-driven environment with stringent schedules designed to protect funding, and a stakeholder universe that spans across business lines and levels of hierarchy. And there is a natural conflict that serves as an organic system of checks and balances between COs/KOs and PMs to ensure that important laws are followed. Procurement policy is subject to interpretation by a CO/KO which can, and usually does, result in miscommunication with the PM and others with equities. When you're a CO/KO, you are held accountable for things that aren't even in your bailiwick. Yes, that's a polite euphemism for ... you're the most convenient scapegoat!
When the weight of the world seems to be sitting squarely on their shoulders, and their every action is scrutinized by internal and external entities, coupled with the fact that they can be held personally liable for their decisions, it's easy for COs/KOs to default to positional vs. personal power. I'd like to think that most Contracting Officers really do try to use influence and persuasion to sell their ideas and gain buy-in for their decision-making, but I know that when that fails - maybe because a PM lacks trust, doesn't understand processes/policies or isn't thinking long-term about potential audit and compliance risk that can stop a procurement or program dead in its tracks - COs/KOs will quickly revert to the gospel of the FAR and use it as their sword and shield. In my humble opinion, the underlying issue surrounding the intimidation and downright angst that some can feel about the warrant authority Contracting Officers hold comes down to the aspect of judgment that is inherent in their role. The fact that COs/KOs are expected to exercise judgment in the performance of their duties can scare folks because ... well, let's be honest ... most people usually only want to 'play in the gray' when it suits them. Knowing that a CO/KO can make the final call on important issues that affect how dollars are spent, which has second, third and fourth order impacts on enterprise decisions writ large, based on how they interpret a set of conditions or policies, can make any stakeholder nervous. That's why I think it's imperative that COs/KOs demonstrate good judgment to instill trust with their counterparts that they are going to be honest brokers.
In order to alleviate some of these trust issues in my organization, we implemented the best practice of using Warrant Boards to vet our prospective Contracting Officer candidates. This lets our Contracting professionals know that we take the level of responsibility that we're placing on them seriously and offers them an opportunity to demonstrate that they're ready for it. I chair the majority of the boards personally and really look for the right mix of interpersonal skills and emotional intelligence to complement the technical subject matter expertise. We do not warrant people just because there is a need. Holding a warrant is a privilege, and not a right, so my hope is that our Contracting Officers feel good about having to earn this level of responsibility and that, in the process, we're instilling the right mentality so that they can do good things with the power that we're granting to them.