Nonprofit group tests new contracting tools

Agencies, companies join forces to improve post-award contract management.

The Private Sector Council, part of the Washington-based nonprofit Partnership for Public Service, has launched a pilot program to improve contract management at the Homeland Security Department and U.S. Agency for International Development.

With the help of 26 officials from big-name companies such as Lockheed Martin Corp. and Pfizer Inc. as well as large federal agencies, the Private Sector Council zeroed in on post-award contract management. "Everyone felt a lot of attention was paid to awards upfront, but little [was paid] to post-award contract management. That was an area they felt we could have a big impact on," said Beth Landes, associate manager of the council.

The group has taken three contracts under its wings: Foreign disaster relief and economic development USAID contracts of yet-to-be-disclosed amounts, and a $2 billion contract to help secure borders at DHS. The contracting offices managing the work also will get mentoring advice from the participating companies, which volunteer their time. To prevent conflicts of interest, companies eligible to bid on the contracts were prohibited from taking part in the pilot program.

Some of the applied tools will focus on building trust. "We know for a fact that a lot of federal agencies and contractors have relatively adversarial relationships," said Barbara Male, strategic adviser at the Partnership for Public Service. Male is on detail from the Energy Department, where she last served as deputy assistant secretary for the Office of Environmental Management.

To build more effective collaboration, Male and the other participants developed a template for a "commitment log" into which managers can enter key milestones, people, actions and resources needed. Male says the idea originated from a program office in the Navy.

Another tool Male recommended is something she calls a "problem resolution and escalation process," which helps managers identify potential problems and fix them. The participants developed a form that can be used by contractors and federal officials to pinpoint the problem, record prior attempts to address it and other key facts, all of which is designed to encourage dealing with the issue instead of ignoring it.

"In some cases, we found best practices at agencies and said, 'Let's see if we can replicate this.' In other cases, we're taking components of what works and are building a new tool," Landes said.

Steven Kelman, professor at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School and former head of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, serves as facilitator for the group's discussions. "This is an effort by the procurement community to engage in self-improvement," he said, and it's partly in response to "the low morale that has arisen from the many recent attacks on the community," such as negative press about government contracting.

The goal is to improve the system from the ground level, as opposed to making top-down policy changes, Kelman added.

Male and Landes are compiling the recommendations into a handbook that will be ready by September, around the time the three contracts in the pilot program are awarded. The Private Sector Council will edit the handbook after getting feedback from USAID and DHS and hopes to make it widely available to agencies next summer.

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