“Gah! My Agreements Officer has no balls!”
My friend, a 40-ish Air Force Program Manager, plops down at the cafe table beside me, coffee sloshing over his hand. He curses under his breath, as much at the burn as at the person who is critical to the success of the Other Transaction he’s yearning to get awarded.
“No balls,” he mutters.
I shrug. “Technically, you’re right. She doesn’t.”
“Oh, you know what I mean. As an Agreements Officer, she has tons of authority and power and she’s using none of it. She won’t do anything unless Policy and Legal approve it first!” He stops to wipe the coffee off his hand with a low-bidder quality napkin. “It’s like she doesn’t have an opinion.”
I understand his frustration. I’ve been on all sides of this argument. The best I can do, as a friend, is to help him see why his Agreements Officer is being so…un-agreeable.
An Agreements Officer is essentially a Contracting Officer with the legal authority to write assistance instruments (essentially non-FAR-based contracts) called Other Transactions. It’s slightly more complicated than that, but you get the idea. You can find the statute for OTs at 10 USC 2371. It’s the most popular buzzword in the Air Force since…since it was the most popular buzzword in 1997.
Back in 1997 when I was first writing OTs, I didn’t have to have special authority or even a special Contracting Officer’s warrant on my wall to distinguish my specialness to award OTs. I had bosses who trusted me, whether or not they liked me, and that was good enough. I got things done, and they knew it. I think I officially had a Grants Officer warrant, in name at least, because I had been writing grants for a couple of years in the same Lab organization before I discovered the perks of 2371. All it took to get a Grants Officer warrant, or an Agreements Officer warrant, was to be a Contracting Officer already and to have taken a basic Grants course. It’s different now because you have to have more coursework to get an Agreements Officer warrant and you have to have that authority delegated down to your organization. In some cases, the buying organization needing their Contracting Officer to become an Agreements Officer doesn’t have the authority to issue an Agreements warrant and must go through another organization who may or may not wish to vouch for the individual needing the warrant. It’s messy, but hopefully will work its way out as OTs rise in popularity again.
So why would an Agreements Officer with all that deep, gurgling, seething power and authority to write an Other Transaction not be using it? Here’s what I told my friend might be the problem, and yep, I’m going to use the feminine pronoun since that was the original question. No offense, guys.
1. The Agreements Officer is in over her head.
Look, for most people, this is all brand spankin’ new. There are not a lot of people out there with 20 years of history with OTs, myself included. At the moment, there are quite a few people dipping their toes in the Other Transaction pool, but that pool is shallow (experience-wise) while at the same time growing thankfully broader (availability-wise). But if you’re a new Agreements Officer with questions, who do you ask? It’s not like you can waltz down to your Front Office because it’s almost certain none of them have ever touched an OT either. They’ll look at it from the context of a regular old FAR-based contract (which is why it’s a shame that so many people rise to the GS-15 and O-6 levels without doing this kind of innovation and being able to teach their minions to add OTs to their Contracting toolkit, but that’s another rant for another day).
Anyway…so your Agreements Officer may be insecure in her ability to help you. As a Contracting Officer, if she hits a snag, she can usually very easily ask a coworker in the next cubicle, meet a mentor for lunch, chat up her procurement analyst in Policy, talk to her supervisor or chief. The advice and war stories are there. Few of us have that (yet) in OT Land. That means an Agreements Officer is breaking relatively new ground in her career and if she screws up, it could go taint her reputation or harm the program. Lack of experience always makes a new skill riskier, and she might not know how much risk she can withstand yet.
2. The Agreements Officer has the authority…but not really.
An Agreements Officer–or Contracting Officer, for that matter–has the authority that warrant on the wall gives her, yes, but it doesn’t mean she’s truly “free” to use it. In some places, Contracting Officers at the GS-14 and 15 levels are little more than Glorified Contract Specialists (I didn’t coin the term) who write the documentation and are held accountable but all decisions come from a higher level. It could be that your Agreements Officer still must go through all the reviews and permissions required by Policy, Legal, Division Chiefs, Directors, etc at that location. She may even be as frustrated as you are.
3. The Agreements Officer doesn’t trust you.
That might be hard to hear, but ask yourself if you’ve been upfront with her. Are you hiding something because you think she’ll balk? Maybe something that’s wrong? Maybe the last time you worked together, you threw her under the bus, metaphorically speaking. My rule was always, always, always put it all on the table and don’t hide anything. No matter how ugly the baby. I could help figure out a solution that was legal and ethical. But lie to me? No. Done. I will refuse to work with you. If you’ve broken the trust with the one person you need to be joined at the hip with, metaphorically speaking, then you might be swimming upstream, metaphorically speaking. You and your Agreements Officer need to be allies, not enemies and not frenemies.
4. The Agreements Officer knows something you don’t.
Just because Other Transactions are suddenly the innovation du jour doesn’t mean they should be one-size-fits-all. I’ve seen conference speakers throw up charts on the view screen that show how fast an OT is vs a contract. Yeah, that could be apples to apples or apples to mangoes or apples to lizards. How big, how complex, what purpose, what to do in future phases…? So many questions to think through. A zero-dollar OT should not take as much time as a $300M contract, I agree.
Other Transactions are not the answer to everything, even as fond as I am of them. They are just another tool, and your Agreements Officer needs to use the right tool in her contracting toolkit.
A Contracting Officer without OT authority can still move quite fast with a FAR-based tool if she knows how and has top cover from her leadership. That just takes creativity and a flexible mindset. For an Agreements Officer with OT authority (and knows how to use it AND has top cover from her leadership), she may still choose not to use an OT if there’s a faster way–maybe a UCA under -2 J&A authority is better for your particular situation or maybe there’s an existing IDIQ that’s pre-priced and can be awarded in 36 hours. I can’t tell you how many times in my Contracting Officer career I had Program Managers show up with a plan that wasn’t legal or was too costly and I could give them 8 other ways to achieve what they wanted just as fast or faster.
As I told my friend, it’s up to you to figure out why your Agreements Officer isn’t using the authority that’s been given to her. Find out what she’s thinking. Ask questions. Figure out her concerns and where the resistance is coming from–if you’ve been naughty and not told her the whole story, that can be a factor, too. Maybe she needs your chain of command’s support to convince her chain of command to support her decisions. Maybe she needs a little coaching from more experienced Agreements Officers or a wider network of Agreements Officers to soundboard with.
Sometimes it’s not a lack of ba– um, backbone— but a lack of communication in figuring out what the actual conflict is so you can bridge it and move forward.
c 2018 Lorna Tedder
- Rapid Acquisition Consultant with Rogue Industries LLC
- 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
- 3 decades of first-hand experience and success with Other Transactions, Oral Proposals, 10 USC 2373, Broad Agency Announcements, unique pricing arrangements, Price Based Acquisition, Award Without Discussion, streamlined source selections, multiple award IDIQs, UCAs, waivers, omnibus tool creation, Quick Reaction Capability teams, and strategic sourcing
- Do you need help? Would you like me to spend a couple of days teaching your Government team how to use innovative contracting methods? Message me on LinkedIn or my contact page.