Other People’s Contracts, or OPC, have been and still can be an effective way of getting things done, but there’s one problem that we need to fix.
I’ve always been a big fan of strategic sourcing and of networking with other buying offices to use contracts that are already in place, whether it’s a program office I’m working with or some other program office that wants to work with my team. It’s so much more efficient when it comes to how we spend taxpayer dollars if we can use an existing vehicle (aka contract, Other Transaction, grant, etc), regardless of where the labor to negotiate and award the contract comes from. I’m well-known for creating omnibus acquisition vehicles and scope big enough to drive a Mack truck through–it’s long been my secret weapon for quick turns, and I love to plan and strategize. When I build a new vehicle, I bake this thought process into the strategy for flexibility…though one missing ingredient will prevent it from being as efficient and as effective as it could be, whether for my customers or for non-customers who want to borrow what I’ve built. It’s much harder to build a vehicle and have to go back and alter it to be flexible.
By the way, I’m not talking about mandatory use of big IDIQ contracts here but rather, the voluntary and sometimes…discreet? creative?…use of contracts to get work awarded quickly and funds obligated.
The Growing Problem With Making Other People’s Contracts Work for Everyone
Other People’s Contracts were a downright excellent idea and one that other buying offices, with a bit of coaxing, were much more willing to do…up until recently. In the mid-90’s, I had 40+ customers using my contracts. In 2001, I had 80+ customers using my humongous Blanket Purchase Agreement. Not so popular now. Somewhere over the last few years, we’ve been hit with:
a. Manpower cuts
b. Sequestration/furloughs/shutdowns/threats to Federal employee benefits
c. Retention issues
d. Recruitment issues
e. Clearance backlogs
f. Lack of depth or breadth of Contracting experience (and other functionals)
g. The inability or perceived inability to contract out almost any contracting jobs
h. Employee burnout from paid overtime (Shhhhh…and uncompensated overtime employees aren’t supposed to talk about)
i. Inability to fill personnel slots in a timely manner
j. A deluge of new policy letters and oversight
k. PEO’s who won’t/can’t turn down additional work in spite of an existing/ongoing/nevergonnagetbetter lack of resources
l. Required Professional Military Education (PME) that gobbles up family vacation time, weekends, evenings, and what’s left of the “work/life balance” unicorn
m. The amusing idea of “doing more with less” until we’re doing pretty much everything with almost nothing at all
n. All of the above
The manpower to get our own contracts done has become a precious resource–one that we are loathe to share with other organizations. Must…protect…ability…to do…own….workload…. I’m not being facetious–it’s a serious concern for a Contracts Chief. The lack of manning in one buying office drives program offices to tell beautiful lies of undying gratitude to other buying offices, such as how lucky they are to have been chosen to do some other buying office’s work because the potential heroes of the day have a reputation of being so fast or so good. Flattery gets some desperate Program Managers everywhere, but it’s just longer hours for the “lucky” buying office.
Why Other People’s Contracts Can Turn to Fisticuffs
It’s a sweet thing to be a Contracting Officer and have a lock-step working relationship with a Program Office. It’s fun, it’s teamwork, it’s productive, it’s in-the-flow zen. Because there so are many Contracting Officer-Program Manager relationships that are hostile or apathetic, when you find each other and can partner up in beautiful ways, that Program Manager is going to brag about his buying office and how his Contracting Officer is the best in all the land. Awww, how nice, right? (It really is.)
And soon enough, he’s pimping out his buying office to his pals at other bases so they can have some legendary lead-times, too. Sometimes he’s upfront with his buying office and asks if they’ll handle a contract for another Program Manager that has nothing whatsoever to do with the buying office’s mission and the personnel slots paid for not by his pals. Sometimes, he dresses up a buddy’s project in his own name and the buying office has no idea unless something goes wrong. I don’t mean that they team up on a joint project that benefits both but that a Program Manager will put up a facade to hide that the disconnect in missions so his friend’s work gets done.
It’s well-intended–take care of a Program Office that needs help because your buying office is lightning fast while your buddy can’t get anything out the door. That’s what the Program Manager is thinking. Then that buddy doesn’t want to make a 5-minute correction the Contracting Officer needs, starts name-calling and threatening to go to The Powers That Be, and all hell breaks loose. Meanwhile, the Program Manager’s project has been moved to a lower priority while resources are diverted to taking care of the friend with a different mission and a different, but slower, buying office.
I’m told I’ve turned purple at least once in my life–when a Program Manager from another base called to complain that my buyer was making her correct a requirements document (less time than the phone call took and absolutely necessary for the proposal). She said her buying office wouldn’t have made her correct it. I had no idea who she was or why she was calling on a supposedly local project. Through gritted teeth, she told me how my Program Manager had volunteered to help her out in a pinch. When I asked why she wasn’t using her own buying office, she spat back, “Because MY Contracting Office is under-resourced!” The laws of physics did not permit me to go through that phone and down her throat to explain that I was limping by on 40% vacancies and she was sucking up what little resources I had and that if I had to put in extra (free overtime) hours to do her work instead of having a home life, then her buying office could put in those extra hours to do her work.
Other times, Program Managers will “shop for a Contracting Officer” or for a contract. That’s when they don’t like how slow their undermanned Contracting shop is so they pay a visit to another undermanned Contracting shop to see if anyone will take on their work after some lavish courting that has been known to include chocolate. Often I have smiled sweetly and said, “You know I’m good friends with your Contracting Chief, right? And you know I’m going to tell her you’re here, too, right?”
The problem is, every Contracting shop I know is in the same manpower situation. Once upon a time in the 80s–or so I’m told–buying offices had extra people. Or at least enough room to spare if an office had a few slugs. That’s not been true for quite a few years. There’s no room for anyone who can’t pull his weight. Most buying offices are less than lean…they are skeletal.
How Can We Solve Other People’s Contracts?
That’s what the problem with Other People’s Contracts comes down to: manpower, specifically Contracting manpower.
It would be ideal if we could build big, flexible Contracting vehicles that Program Offices outside our own could use for more efficient–meaning faster and less manpower–contract awards. But from the point of view of the owner of the contract, that means two things:
- Allow other buying offices to play on your contract–THEY do the work
- Allow other buying offices to use the contract, Other Transaction, etc, and they do the work themselves after the vehicle has been set up. Manpower is supplied by the requesting buying office, not by the owner of the vehicle.
- Problem: Whether an omnibus contract or a more specific contract with scope and headroom to spare, these contracts may be used by various buying offices that have no real concern for the integrity of the vehicle and may not be using it appropriately unless someone somewhere is policing the vehicle. How annoying to have a Program Office with nothing to do with your mission demand to “borrow” your contract to write a delivery order against it for something that’s not in scope or to use up your J&A ceiling so that you’ll have to write a new contract for unforeseen in-scope work of your own that might come up. Even more annoying? Having that Program Office tell you, the person they don’t know conceived and built from scratch the omnibus contract they want to borrow, what the intentions of that contract were. I was always protective of my initiatives so that they weren’t bastardized by new people interpreting it to suit themselves, but once the originator of an initiative has moved on, then the intentions become blurred and hard for the new owner to refute.
- What’s needed: For omnibus contracts, the owner needs to have a template package built that ensures scope, structure, any applicable rules are met. I’m assuming these vehicles wouldn’t be super-difficult for someone to borrow–pre-priced IDIQs, for example–and that the borrower is willing to abide by the rules as set up so they don’t botch the contract and render it useless for everyone else, including the owner. The more complex, the harder to decentralize and still have consistency of scope. For the non-owner, it needs to be almost a rubber stamp process.
- Allow other Program Offices to play on your contract–YOU do the work
- Allow Program Offices to use the contract, but you do the buying for them instead of their “normal” buying offices. Manpower is supplied by the owner of the vehicle.
- Problem: Where do you think the people to do the work is coming from? There’s definitely not a Magic Contracting Officer Tree with tasty, ripe CO’s hanging on the lowest branches. Maybe some greenish ones near the top. A Program Office can take workload off their own buying office by sending the effort elsewhere but someone still has to the do the buying, and experienced manpower is slim these days. Thus, buying offices will often turn down a Program Office, even if their contract’s scope would cover the work and be easier (for somebody) to get the effort on contract faster. The response? “Would love to help, but I don’t have anybody to do it for you because I don’t have enough buyers to do what’s already on their desks.” The silent ad-lib? “And if I let you do it yourself, you’ll mess up my contract and cause me more work.”
- What’s needed: Creative ways to figure out manpower.
So here’s your homework: In expanding the use of Other People’s Contracts, what are ways to provide manpower or some equivalent to buying offices that have omnibus contracts or similar scope contracts so the product or service can be bought more efficiently? Keyword phrase here is SIMILAR SCOPE, so that you’ve not throwing A&AS for IT support onto some other base’s production contract with the same contractor.
- Send the Program Office’s buyer or Contracting Officer tdy to the buying office with the contract and have him do the work for owning Contracting Officer. Maybe a reservist? A Ghost? Could be good networking and cross-training. The complaints I’ve heard most are 1. the person sent may not be competent, 2. the person sent might not do it “our” way, which is the only right way, ya know, 3. the person sent may not have the right kind of warrant or be able to get on our computer system for a minimum of 2 weeks (sad but true), and 4. the person sent won’t be here long enough to do it.
- Send money/supplies/services to the buying office or their overarching Contracting organization to off-set paying existing buyers overtime or the expenses of moving a temporarily less-busy buyer in one office to the office that needs extra manpower to support the requesting Program Office (that latter suggestion is considered politically unsavory since if an office can do without a buyer for two months while a solicitation is on the street, it’s unfortunately interpreted as a red flag that that office is permanently overmanned).
- The buying office could charge the Program Office fees for the work, provided doing so has been included in their contract’s acquisition strategy. I know some that charge as much as 12%. Others are 3% to 6%. This is why many Program Managers resort to flattery so they don’t have to pay a fee! Perhaps if you’re already on contract and know that your contract is borrow-worthy, you could go back to a Delta Acquisition Strategy Panel or its equivalent to add a fee structure for borrowers as well as a template package and rules of use? Keep in mind that you might not be legally allowed to charge fees, so check with your own organization and legal counsel before setting a strategy in stone.
- The Program Office could establish an additional Contracting personnel slot at the buying office’s location, specifically to handle their workload. This won’t be fast initially and will take likely require a written agreement between organizations, but if the Program Office needs this contract enough and the owner of the contract plans ahead, it’s doable. Maybe a term position?
- If the buying office is a bit more open-minded, the Program Office could hire a manpower support person as “acquisition support” (loophole alert!) to write up most of the contracting documentation to lessen the workload. Because a lot of Contracting organizations are not yet comfortable with the idea of contracting out contracting, some Program Offices are quietly providing support contractors to their Program Managers who prepare documents for the Contracting Officer as though the documents came from the Program Manager. J&A’s are a good example, which the Program Manager is supposed to write but the Contracting Officer often ends up doing it alone. Since support contractors can’t sign representing the Government anyway (aka Personal Services violation), no one’s going to know who crafted those documents, hmmmm?
I’ve just given you 5 do-able ideas, even though I’ve heard oh-hell-no on all of them at some point. Tweak them to your heart’s delight. Use them as launching points for something different. Come on. Give me your ideas, and I’ll edit this post to add them. Remember, we’re not reforming the whole Acquisition system in one post–until we can reform the system, we look for innovative but legal ways to make thing happen on the periphery of the system. Just like how we write people up for awards for finding ways around the bureaucracy, not for working within it.
Hey, one more quick tip: if you’re looking for contracts you might tag onto for a sole source action, your contracting office can run a report through their contract writing database to see if that contractor has other local contracts. However, the best way in my opinion is to call the contractor and see if they have contracts with similar scope, regardless of the buying office. Since the expertise in a particular area is likely to be in the same location within a contractor’s overall structure, you’ll probably get a better answer and one that includes contracts you might not know about otherwise.
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
- 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.