(If you missed Part 1, read it first, then come back)
How IPTs Exacerbate the Personnel Bathtub
I’ll admit that I occasionally reverse my position on things I never dreamed I would. One of those things, as of 2015, was IPTs, or integrated product teams, or having Contracting folks co-located with their Program Offices or customers.
As I mentioned in Part 1, I’ve always loved the idea of Contracting personnel sitting at the center of a wheel hub and servicing nearby spokes (program offices or branches). Yes, that’s a Contracting-centric fantasy but one where I’d be close to all my customers at once. It remains a fantasy, especially since I always had multiple customers and they all wanted me sitting with them…in different buildings. If only my rocket scientists could have figured out how to clone us.
In January 1990, I was eight months pregnant with my scientist daughter and graduating from the Copper Cap internship three months early. A deal was cut between my GS-15 (back when a GS-15 really meant something) and the Air Force Research Lab (before it was AFRL) which was one of my customers. We were to be co-located or matrixed to the Lab. Those were new terms back then. It was another couple of years before the acronym IPT became popular. The lieutenant colonel over my group knew that his 40+ team was to be split up in two months, so he naughtily handpicked all the interns, new graduates, and two about-to-retire employees and sent us with no notice to a building down the hill, while he kept the experienced people, computers, furniture, etc. And coffee pot. Our average experience level with the two old-timers came to two years, and I felt we’d been set up to fail. Our chief didn’t bother to arrange phones or computers or anything before sending us there with our boxes and still insisted for the next 2 months that we waddle (okay, I was the only one waddling) back up the hill for staff meetings that were often cancelled after I’d waddled up the hill. And if they weren’t cancelled, we just talked about the coffee fund for the coffee pot half of us couldn’t use. Bleh.
But something magnificent was born out of this frustration.
We arrived at the Lab with no equipment, no furniture, no phones, no supplies, and very little experience. And yet, that adversity was the key to our camaraderie for years to come. We gathered our mismatched and occasionally broken furniture out of the salvage warehouse and dumpsters, and our Lab engineers helped us move into five dirty, scattered rooms. We acquired a couple of gallons of the cheapest paint we could find, which happened to be a wild sky blue–and painted the rooms ourselves over the weekend. We borrowed phones and computers. We scrounged. We became scrappers with attitude. And in the midst of feeling we’d been thrown out to fend for ourselves, our Program Managers were tickled pink to have us there…and we…bonded. We Contracting peeps became friends with them in an era where we’d been taught, “Who’s the bigger crook? The Program Manager or the Contractor?” and “If your Program Manager/Contractor likes what you’re doing, then you must be doing it wrong.” We became a team in the truest sense, at a time when teaming with your Program Office was not a popular thing within Contracting.
And I was a complete convert to IPT life, and living with my customers.
In 2015, I changed my mind, but it was because of the personnel bathtub.
You see, over the years, as the personnel bathtub became deeper, the structure and manning levels of Contracting personnel in different IPTs changed.
In the late 1990s, around the time that IPTs became immensely popular, Contracting personnel and IPTs tended to sit together in little offices close to their Program Managers. Typically the Contracting section of an IPT had 12 to 20 personnel. A typical structure for such an office would have been a GS-14 or Lieutenant Colonel Contracting Chief with but most likely without a warrant, a deputy with a warrant, two branch chiefs with warrants, two or three middle-aged female (usually) Contracting Officers with 20+ years of experience and often referred to by Program Managers as “ball busters,” one intern, one to four procurement clerks (anybody remember what those were?), and a wide range of Contract Specialists, many of whom had 10 to 25 years of experience in Contracting. If one member of the Contracting section hit a problem that couldn’t be easily resolved, all that person had to do was yelp from his or her desk and there was plenty of help around. More experienced buyers or Contracting Officers or even the boss could weigh in quickly with a solution they had seen before. That was part of the on-the-job training in those days. And whatever problems you didn’t encounter in your own workload, you often heard over the lowest-bidder partition of a neighbor’s cubicle.
Over the next decade as personnel slots were cut and vacancies weren’t filled, those buying offices of 12 to 20 people began to dwindle. As program offices were split up into teams, each with its own Contracting Officer and buying support, the once large buying offices became four or five smaller units, eventually relocated geographically so that Contracting Officers under one chief sat in multiple buildings, sometimes a quarter mile or more apart. This meant no sharing of expertise with Contracting colleagues and more difficult reach-back to chiefs and second-level supervisors. Even first-level supervisors were 1341 Fitbit steps (one way) away from their employees in another building.
It also meant Contracting Chiefs were maxing their Fitbit steps everyday trying to hit all their subordinate offices, criss-crossing the base to make only the mandatory meetings. I myself stayed in trouble for 3 years for almost never being at my desk but I had five Program Office customers in seven locations–none were on my floor and two I had to drive to because they were so far away from my office, with barriers to walking. It was impossible to do my job and stay in my physical seat, and that meant leaving behind green personnel who needed me to be nearby to answer questions, approve strategies, sign documents. It only got worse.
By 2015, as we began to hurt badly for Contracting Officers and experienced manpower, it was typical that these little buying teams were comprised of only three to five people: a relatively new Contracting Officer with maybe five years of total experience and only a few months of that with a warrant, a buyer with slightly less experience, and an intern. Maybe a new lieutenant thrown in for training. These teams sat away from anyone else in Contracting, away from anyone with more experience, away from their supervisors, away from their chiefs. Close to sometimes intimidating and sometimes ill-informed Program Managers without being able to say no to a bad idea because they didn’t have the knowledge or not able to think of a better way because they didn’t have the experience (Don’t choose to be offended — yes, there are some bad/inexperienced PMs, just as there are some bad/inexperienced Contracting folks.)
First the co-location and then the isolation and whittling down to micro-teams. I don’t think anyone realized the effect at the time. There was little to no reach-back, either to mentors or to staff. No help, no guidance, no top cover, no old war stories to help season the newcomer. I didn’t come up through my training like that, but imagine how intimidating it must be to have a new warrant and so little experience and feel isolated. Worse, to not even know what you don’t know.
I never thought I would change my mind about what a great idea it is to have Contracting sitting with Program Management, but having little pockets of Contracting personnel scattered geographically without the benefit of experienced mentors to rely on changed my mind. Much to the displeasure of some of my customers who had buying offices sitting with them in every single meeting they held, needed it or not, I began pulling buying teams back into my physical presence so that I could better train the very green teams in my own personnel bathtub. The technical personnel relied on Contracting for technical work, not just Contracting work, which now freed up my team to focus on buying rather writing requirements documents, which A&AS contractors could do if the technical team didn’t have time. The technical team also had to take responsibility as they wouldn’t be held accountable for their actions if a Contracting person was somewhere within the general area. Again, not things you would normally think of but evolve over time after living together in one office. I won’t fault anyone for these things as dynamics of IPTs change over long periods of time, and you just don’t know until your look back and assess what works and what doesn’t.
But I did accomplish the training and reach-back my minions needed. On the very first day I brought one of my teams back into my physical area, I overheard a Contracting Officer with a two-month-old warrant tell someone else, “I’ve seen this only once before, and it was my first year as an intern, so I guess we could solve it that way.” Listening from my office–my team didn’t know I could hear them until then–I heard the proposed solution and couldn’t sit still. I jumped up from behind my desk and ran to where several of my employees were discussing what to do.
“Yes,” I said to the three of them who altogether had less than 10 years experience combined, “you could do it that way, but there are three better ways that will get you there way faster and with less effort. Back in 1988, we did _________. Or you could do what I did in 1993 and try ________, but probably the best solution is something we did in 2005 which was _____________.” Of course, they couldn’t have guessed those solutions. Two of them were still in diapers when those solutions became part of my repertoire, and I took it as my responsibility to teach them, so they would have those solutions in their toolkit if needed.
It was a learning experience for everyone because most of the 25 people working for me that day overheard the conversation and learned something that day, but none of that would have happened if they had been sitting isolated in another building.
Keep in mind that pulling back Contracting is not by any means an ideal solution. I still like IPTs. I don’t like lack of training/experience/reach-back/top cover. The ideal solution would be to have a decent number of experienced Contracting personnel sitting with their customers or Program Office teams. It’s the personnel bathtub that makes it problematic.
Why Still a Personnel Bathtub?
But going back to 2008, the plan was to bring in these new inexperienced interns, many straight out of college, and invest three or four years into bringing them up to the journeyman level and a few more years before we started pushing them to be Contracting Officers. The problem was, not everyone stayed until the end of the internship and then others left within a year or two after. They left to go to other Government organizations, they left to start families closer to Grandma and Grandpa, they left enjoy the big city for a few years before starting families, they left because they hated being patted on the head as millennials, and they left because they didn’t want to buy stuff that kills people. Just some of what they told me. For the ones who stayed, we began pushing them almost immediately upon intern graduation to begin studying for their warrants.
I joked at the time with a couple of other NH-IV’s. “Hey, do you remember old Mr. ____________ who was our equivalent 25 years ago? He was a God to us then. He seemed to have an answer for everything. And yet I feel like half the time, we make decisions by the seat of our pants.” Yes, and hope those millennials don’t realize how uncertain we are.
However, the problem isn’t just with retaining interns we’ve just invested years of training in, but in bringing in interns to begin with. How do you encourage the best and the brightest to join the Government team when they’re seeing their predecessors’ benefits be stripped from their own potential employment packages. I’ve had this conversation often with my own adult children: one tried to follow in my footsteps in the intern program and got tired of waiting months and months and months for Personnel to process the paperwork; the other chose Federal service because she loves the work but she could double her salary instantly if she jumped industry. They were also considering Federal service at the same time that I as Mom was wondering if the retirement plan I had signed up to at the beginning of my career would be a commitment kept by my own employer.
Which brings us to the other side of the retention table as old-timers are leaving or contemplating leaving for retirement. I couldn’t stand the idea of having to go through another shutdown exercise, and after watching too often on the news for the last year about how retirees after certain not-yet-set date might have significantly lower benefits, I decided to retire before that date was set. I was truly sweating it for about two months, waiting to make sure that I was eligible for full benefits before putting in my papers and hoping that full benefits didn’t vanish under the weight of politics before I hit my date. I knew I’d take a huge financial hit after working 31 years under one set of promises if the magic date was 1 January 2018. I’ve seen the same worries from a number colleagues who think that their benefits might be reduced significantly at the end of FY19 or maybe CY19 and want to finalize their papers before they’re held to a new last-minute standard and lose their pensions or part of them. That’s not fear mongering. These are things that the elders of the Contracting profession think seriously about. It isn’t being unpatriotic either–it’s trying to make sure that we’re not eating dog food in her old age. I know quite a few colleagues who are retiring this year, not because they want to leave Federal service, but because they want to leave but because they must put their finances first.
If you’re not aware of the changing benefits for new recruits or for those eligible or nearly eligible to retire, then you’re probably not on either lip of the personnel bathtub.
Bringing in more interns is a good step, but it’s a bathtub without a stopper and a vortex at the bottom. Unless The Powers That Be are more proactive.
This is where we are right now in 2018: right in the middle of the personnel bathtub that unfortunately, if it changes shape, it may be because there are fewer noobs coming in and fewer blue hair staying on. I hate to bring up any problem that I can’t at least try to offer a solution to, but I’m fresh out.
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant
- Recently retired Contracting Officer, unlimited AFMC warrant 1991-2018
- Nationally recognized Innovation Thought Leader in Government acquisition
- Rapid acquisition teacher, both FAR and non-FAR based contracting
- Master brain-stormer and advisor to program offices across the DoD
- Expert in developing junior and mid-level personnel to become innovators in Government acquisition
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