April 27, 2012
As an intern from U.S. Army Contracting Command (ACC) -- National Capital Region, I had the unique experience of accompanying my agency's Executive Director, Michael R. Hutchison, and Gregory Moore, Kuwait/ Qatar Reachback Branch Chief for ACC -- Rock Island, IL, on a two week developmental assignment to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, and Vicenza, Italy.
Although my assignment was only 12 days long, I learned important lessons that would have taken years to understand had I not spent time OCONUS, especially in a contingency environment.
Three especially valuable observations, related to both the pre-award and post-award phases of the acquisition cycle, stand out from my assignment. These "lessons learned" represent three different facets of contracting, the understanding of which is essential to our continuous development as acquisition professionals.
First, acquisition professionals must work with the requiring activity to better define the contract requirements. Second, we must acknowledge the importance of contracting officer's representatives (CORs). Finally, we must understand the significance of collaboration among the requiring activity, contracting office, and contractor. Increased focus and development in these areas will result in higher- quality contract performance, at a lower price to the government.
Writing encompassing requirements documents, especially the Performance Work Statement (PWS), gives a clear picture of what the government requires and allows contractors to adequately prepare to accomplish the government's goals. Failure to properly establish the government's requirements, however, will lead to problems down the line.
While on assignment, I attended a meeting regarding a contract that had been in place for a significant period of time but was having "scope" issues. At this meeting, the meanings of some of the key terms, as written in the PWS, were debated for nearly an hour. Since the PWS was not clearly written initially, the government had been unable to reach a consensus on what work was within or outside its scope.
When the contractor argued that work was outside the scope of the contract, the government spent weeks debating whether or not the contractor was correct. Mission progress essentially stopped until a resolution was reached. Had the PWS been written clearly in the pre-award phase, this meeting of 20-plus people (from quality assurance personnel, to contract specialists, to legal counsel) could have been avoided.
COR'S CRITICAL ROLE
In order for the government to conduct post-award actions effectively, it must first realize the importance of CORs. While the COR has many different responsibilities, his or her primary function is to ensure that the government is receiving the goods and services for which it is paying. Unfortunately, the COR's importance is often overlooked. Contrary to DoD policy, a number of service contracts do not have CORs.
Many CORs, because of other pressing duties in a contingency environment, are compelled to treat their COR roles as a secondary duty. This relegation of COR duties to a place of secondary importance was evident in one meeting where we learned that a previous COR had rarely been to a work site and had not kept any records of progress. There had been issues with contractor performance, but when it came time to determine what had gone wrong, it was impossible to assign responsibility to anyone because there was no documentation.
When it comes to establishing award fees, the COR provides the required feedback to determine the appropriate fee amount. In a Performance Evaluation Board meeting, we learned that a COR had been working for about a month but had never conducted an audit because he did not feel he had the proper training. As a result, the government was unable to evaluate the contractor on its performance under certain task areas of the contract.
A second COR giving feedback about a contractor's performance considered the fact that a contractor had attended all the mandatory meetings as a strength. The contractor should not have received any additional award fee for this, however, because attendance at meetings was a contractual requirement.
Until the acquisition community realizes the importance of CORs and acts accordingly, the government will be unable to accurately monitor contractor performance and evaluate contractors fairly.
TEAMING WITH CONTRACTORS
It is very important to have a strong relationship involving the customer, contracting office, and contractor, regardless of where work is being performed. Collaboration becomes even more essential in the contingency environment because of sudden schedule changes and external factors that influence how work must be done.
Camp Arifjan, like many U.S. bases OCONUS, is government-owned and contractor-operated. Contractors perform virtually all functions that make it possible to live on base, from food preparation to force protection services.
Although contractors do not take the oath of office like government employees do, it is important to understand that they also care about accomplishing the mission, and not just the money. The Armed Forces are responsible for fighting our Nation's wars, but we need to remember that it takes contractors to win wars as well.
Contractors who transport supplies in hostile territories are in constant danger. They share the sacrifice. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 2,871 contractors have been killed and more than 74,000 have been injured overseas since Sept. 11, 2001. Contracting office personnel and customers must respect this sacrifice and treat contractors with fairness.
A NECESSARY SEPARATION
Some line of separation between the government and contractor must still exist, however. One commander found this difficult because he worked on a team with a contracted employee every day but was unable to reward the employee with a coin, as he could with his government teammates. While this is an example of government/contractor separation influencing the growth of a team environment, there are other missions in which separation between the government and contractor is necessary.
One example I encountered was a contract that involved the harvesting and distribution of medical equipment and supplies. Since medication was inventoried and distributed, the government had to know who was accountable for the medication for liability reasons. If a contractor and a government employee were each inventorying the same box of medicine and some appeared to be stolen, it would not be possible to determine who was responsible. As a result, medical theft could become a serious issue.
Regardless of the assignment of accountability, it was still evident to me that a weak relationship among the requiring activity, contracting office, and contractor jeopardizes contract success. Failure to correct preventable issues like these may lead to contract failure.
Possibly the most important lesson I learned from my trip was that although the contract can fail, the mission cannot. When this was mentioned, it was a specific reference to the movement of large numbers of armored vehicles off the base in a very small window of time. If there were a need for these vehicles in a neighboring country, they had to get there whether or not contractors were moving other things.
Consider this example, too: In the contingency environment, an expired contract may result in the loss of force protection services. Since it is impossible to win a war without force protection, the Armed Forces must fulfill the requirement with their own staff, mainly Soldiers.
The primary issue here is that resources cannot be shifted at will, because there will always be a lack of manpower somewhere else. Second, it is not a Soldier's responsibility to know everything about contracting, especially if he or she is serving in another specialty. In order to accomplish the mission, the Soldier may inadvertently break procedure and violate Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) principles.
These hazards are all avoidable, however, if acquisition professionals constantly work to stay on schedule, maintain awareness of deadlines, and take measures to prevent contract failure.
After going on this developmental assignment, I understand the importance of contracting properly in the contingency environment. It is certainly not easy, and it takes a high level of skills that aren't always taught in the CONUS learning environment.
Just because someone is Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act Level III certified does not necessarily mean that person will thrive in a contingency environment. Good interpersonal skills are highly important in order to resolve the conflicts inherent in such an environment. A person must have the willpower and stamina to work 14-hour days, at least six days a week, in order to contract for critical supplies and services.
Finally, a person must have a high level of personal character and integrity to ensure that the principles of the FAR are being followed, even when under internal and external pressures that come with the environment.