Contracting Czar

Mark Lumer says sometimes you have to be a dictator.

When Mark J. Lumer was 23, he took a civil service test and was offered two jobs, one in procurement and the other in materiel management. He told the interviewer, "I'm sorry, I don't know what either of those are." The interviewer told him generals were graded on how well they handled procurement, so Lumer figured it must be important. He started his career as an Army intern at Fort Monmouth, N.J. Thirty-one years later, the New York City native is in charge of $14 billion in contracts as the principal assistant responsible for contracting at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command.

Like Capt. Ahab trying to destroy the elusive Moby Dick, Lumer has made it his mission to put an end to paperwork and bureaucratic holdups. When he joined the command in 1995, clerks made up one-quarter of the 65-member staff. He slowly turned most of those positions into professional ones, and today the office of 85 has only three clerks. During the same period, the value of contracts awarded through the office grew by $9 billion, from $5 billion to $14 billion.

Lumer was quick to automate paper-heavy processes. About eight years ago, his operation became the first at the Defense Department to switch to an electronic system for requests, proposals, and task and delivery orders. In addition to speeding up the process, it is easy for Lumer's staff to keep a record of all transactions. (Yes, the office does keep one paper copy, just in case the computer systems fail.)

"[We] are the most efficient contracting office in the federal government," says Lumer, an affable baby boomer with a neatly trimmed beard and mustache. He says it costs the command a little more than a quarter of a penny to buy $1 worth of goods and services, a relatively low rate. During his 15 years working for the Army Communications-Electronics Command at Fort Monmouth, he saw what he called "the debilitating effects" of paperwork and promised if there was ever a way to streamline a process, he would.

"He found a way to legally contract things in a quick manner. Things didn't sit on people's desks," says retired Col. Robert Pollard, former chief of staff at the Space and Missile Defense Command, which is headquartered both in Huntsville, Ala., and Arlington, Va.

Of course, Lumer's strategy didn't make everyone happy. To smooth out bumps, he helped clerks find jobs elsewhere in the command before he turned their slots into professional contracting positions. But for those who were "still into the stubby pencil drill," as he puts it, he took a tougher approach. "It goes against most management philosophies, but you have to be a dictator," he says. Some people converted to the new automatic system and others retired because they couldn't handle it, he says.

His tough stance paid off. For 11 years, Lumer says, automating and reducing administrative staff saved the command millions of dollars annually. He's won leadership and contracting honors along the way, including the Army's highest civilian award, Decoration for Exceptional Civilian Service, in 2000.

Bureaucratic delays still frustrate him. With acquisition employees retiring and many agencies facing staff shortages, Lumer says he'd like to be able to hire without going through the human resources process, which can take up to nine months.

He has some advice for decision-makers in contracting: Develop a standing workforce that can be quickly deployed anywhere in the world. As the Army's assistant deputy assistant secretary for policy and procurement for Iraq from November 2003 to July 2004, Lumer saw firsthand the need for more experienced contracting officers. The office started out with two procurement officials in June 2003, which Lumer says was far too few. He also thinks officials should make better use of emergency procurement regulations, including a provision that allows Defense to jump ahead of private firms when the department seeks to buy goods and services it has deemed priorities. Lumer says this authority is rarely used, although it would have been helpful when ordering body armor, for example.

As part of his work on Iraq procurement, the Army asked Lumer to meet with U.S. allies, including El Salvador, Hungary and Singapore, to explain U.S. acquisition rules to local companies and help them sign up with the Pentagon's central contractor registry. Of the dozen or so countries he visited, Lumer says only one has withdrawn its troops from Iraq. "I like to think that my team contributed something to that outcome, albeit in a very minor way," he says.

Lumer, who believes contracting employees are obligated to "wield power ethically," has awarded contracts to workers with disabilities for administrative support roles in the Huntsville office and the laser facility in Las Cruces, N.M. "Many are now holding a job for the first time and are delighted to pay taxes," he says. Lumer's father, who served in the Army during World War II despite being legally blind, is his inspiration. In 2003, Lumer won the Dick Alley award from the National Industries for the Severely Handicapped for his commitment to workers with disabilities.

To maintain professional integrity, Lumer has mastered the art of declining social invitations. Former Army colleagues who have become contractors occasionally invite him to dinner. "I have to say, 'I'm sorry, no, I can't. I know we're friends and I could get an exception, but it would create a bad perception . . . the day after I retire, I'll be happy to come see you,' " he says.

Those friends might have to wait a while. Lumer, who spends weekends at home in Springfield, Va., relaxing and reading, says he still has a lot of work to do.