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tise in managing contracts.
Here I want to suggest a few other
initiatives for discussion to improve the government’s access to subject- matter expertise (e.g., in IT) and con- tract management skills such as nego- tiating modifications and evaluating deliverables. It is surprising how little discussion or writing focuses on the areas I mention below (perhaps with the exception of the first). Therefore, I don’t feel I know enough at this point to recommend the approaches I out- line, but I think all of them warrant discussion.
1. 18F and the U.S. Digital Ser- vice. Both organizations represent an approach to improving IT expertise in government that involves short-term access to talented people who are unlikely to work for the government permanently or even for an extended length of time. They are examples of a good idea I have long recommended: Because young people do not plan on staying with one employer for life, the way many of their parents did, we should make it easier for young people to do short-term gigs.
The approach is an excellent one in theory and could be expanded to make a bigger dent in expertise. (18F is already planning to hire more folks.) My impression, however, is that views in the federal IT community are mixed about how well 18F and USDS are working. Critics have raised con- cerns about 18F and USDS folks being arrogant toward agency IT employees, including CIOs, and being too political and eager for publicity. There is also a substantive worry that their skills might be limited to digital design and not involve other knowledge necessary to help agencies with legacy systems.
My quick view is that 18F and USDS are good enough that it is worth invest- ing resources to reduce the cultural conflicts and make relationships more
collaborative, and seeing if it’s possible to recruit people with wider skillsets. 2. Independent verification and val- idation contracting. At a minimum, IV&V contracts hire an outside organi- zation to do a final check of the func- tionality of newly developed software and might give the contractor other tasks as well. This is a low-visibility corner of IT contracting. When I did a search on, I found just one article in the past 10 years that dealt substantively with IV&V; the others mostly listed vendors that had won various contracts.
The one exception involved a 2011 Government Accountability Office report that noted the Department of Homeland Security’s lack of policies for when to award IV&V contracts. Fur- thermore, officials “were unaware of the extent to which [IV&V was] being used on major IT acquisition pro- grams [and] associated expenditures, or if those expenditures are producing satisfactory results.”
How successful is this kind of con- tracting in helping the government? Should the government use it more or apply it to a wider array of contract management activities?
3. Personal services contracting.
Part 37.104 of the Federal Acquisi- tion Regulation prohibits “personal services contracting” without specific statutory authorization. Such contracts are defined as situations in which an individual from outside the organiza- tion is under more or less constant supervision and direction from a gov- ernment manager, so he or she essen- tially becomes an employee.
The official explanation is that an employee must be hired using the civil service system, not through contract- ing. There are legitimate arguments against personal services contracting, but I think the disapproval at this point might reflect ancient and now-unex-
amined tradition as much as anything. In 2007, the Acquisition Advisory Panel on service contracting recom- mended a statutory elimination of the ban on personal services contracting, but nothing ever came of it. One pos- sibility would be to allow a statutory exemption for personal services con- tracting for contract management, per-
haps limited to IT.
My remarks might make me sound
more committed to these ideas than I am. In all three cases, as I noted above, I don’t know enough to have an opin- ion. Nor do I want to limit the discus- sion to these alternatives.
That’s why I want to get a conver- sation going that involves government program and contracting folks; con- tractors; independent experts, such as the Procurement Round Table, or those providing advice to government on good contracting, such as ASI Gov- ernment and Censeo Consulting Group; and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. The idea would be to learn more so that we as a community can figure out how best to improve post-award contract management. There is a lot of money at stake in managing contracts well — or poorly. We cannot afford to do nothing.
I invite readers to comment on this column or write independently in other outlets about the subject of improving contract management. If you have an idea you would like me to discuss in a subsequent post, please contact me at
Let’s try to make some progress here! n
Steve Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former adminis- trator of the Office of Federal Pro- curement Policy. His blog can be found at
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