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Contingency Contracting Ruminations and Recommendations

The author mines his personal experiences to offer some thoughts on meeting the challenges of contingency contracting.

What follows are the observations of a staff officer who worked in the field of contingency contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008. My intent is to highlight some lessons learned by someone with a little different perspective on contingency contracting—an Army Acquisition Corps officer trained primarily in program management and logistics but cross-trained in contracting. I hope those who will be supporting a future deployment will gain perspective and
some factors to consider for their missions from reading this.

I arrived in the theater of operations completely unannounced to the command, which often happens despite our ability to zip emails with every humorous joke and video clip known to mankind around the planet faster than light. In any event, there I was. We swept in at night on a UH–60 Black Hawk helicopter, under low illumination with chaff and flare popping like machinegun fire as we headed for the landing zone. I had four suitcases, three duffle bags, an iPod, a laptop computer, a cell phone, a personnel digital assistant, an 800-gigabyte external hard drive of music—and there was not a 110-volt outlet anywhere to be found.

My goal in this article is to address five questions that resulted from my observations of contingency contracting—

  • Should a contracting officer be a generalist or specialist?
  • Should program managers (officers with area of concentration [AOC] 51A) and junior contracting officers (AOC 51C) be allowed to swim in the same gene pool as level III contracting officers (KOs)? [To oversimplify, level III positions are generally for lieutenant colonels and above.]
  • Do bank tellers and contracting officer’s representatives (CORs) have more in common than we imagine?
  • Are shorter KO tour lengths better?
  • Can email traffic be tamed?

My rules of engagement are simple. First, there are no metrics. So for all the recovering “A” types, proceed with caution and remember that you have been warned! The information I present is anecdotal—no metrics, PowerPoint charts, regression analysis, or webpages to refer to for interactive analysis, and not even one quote from anyone who is famous, infamous, or anonymous. And just to push us over the edge, the focus areas are not presented in any order; they are not higher to lower, lower to higher, or otherwise ranked.

The following scenarios provide an illustration of the focus areas. After discussing each point, I’ll culminate with the proverbial “path ahead” that I would implement if I were king for a day.

Generalist or Specialist?

KO #1: Look, I’m a contracting officer. I don’t do transportation. Besides, I contracted for the material and the shipping terms are F.O.B. [freight on board], so it is the vendor’s problem to get the items delivered. Besides, I have 20 contract actions working on my desk.

KO #2: I know. I had a similar situation last week, and I’m still waiting for delivery.

I submit that the KO must be a generalist in many fields, with transportation as the key field, but a specialist in the field of contracting. Back home, we would say, “You need to be an inch deep and a mile wide.”

KOs can quote the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), Defense Federal Acquisition Regulations, and acquisition instructions and oversee a competitive selection process and all of the other tasks associated with contracting. However, when the KO drifts from his specialty, he exits his comfort zone. All military branches or career specialists are like that, so this is not unique to the world of KOs.

In an effort to combat this very situation, the Army Acquisition Corps has begun requiring personnel to become broader in scope. I think this is good. Knowledge of an alternate acquisition field will prove beneficial as one builds a bigger rolodex of resources for future assignments, missions, and challenges.

Given that the majority of KOs are from the Air Force, I can say that the Air Force does a great job training and growing KOs. Officer, enlisted, and civilian personnel are all very knowledgeable as they “single” track when it comes to this career field; this system builds excellence. But in the contingency contracting environment, we have to learn the second-order effects of our actions and how to ask probing questions when we work with local nationals. For example, F.O.B. or FedEx deliveries in the United States and other noncombat environments work as advertised, conform to generally accepted terms, and are used in contracts with little concern about confusion from the KO. But this is not the case in the contingency environment, and we have to remember this.

Now, you may be saying that I am stating the obvious, but how many of us go to turn on a light switch when we know the electricity is out? This analogy holds true in contingency contracting. We grow so accustomed to a certain level of service based on our experiences in a peacetime environment that we forget what a challenge everything can be in a contingency environment. What works well in peace does not function as well in a conflict. Knowing the right question to ask is paramount in getting to the ground truth and developing a working solution. Allow me to focus on transportation and provide an example that I have observed.

Once upon a time, a field command had just sent a flaming email up to “Higher,” and it had rolled downhill and landed in the KO’s lap. Everyone’s favorite question was in the subject line: “When am I getting my stuff?” So the KO quickly got on the phone and, after multiple attempts, finally was able to get in contact with the local vendor. The vendor spoke broken English, and the KO’s Arabic was even worse. The summary of the vendor’s response was, “Seven days.” The KO’s inquired again, “Are you sure?” The vendor replied, “Yes, 7 days.” This message of 7 days was then pollinated, propagated, regurgitated, incubated, and emailed across the theater of operations through horizontal and vertical levels and every chart and chain of command imaginable, and all was good with the world.

Often, this scenario has a happy ending; sometimes it does not. Trust me, the contingency contracting environment is the elixir of which Murphy lives, breathes, and dreams. So we should plan for the worst and hope for the best.

I learned the following info nugget while working with those in the transportation world: The KO can uncover a few more facts from a vendor by asking just a few questions. For example—

Question 1: Vendor, can you fax or email me a copy of your import clearance documentation?

If, after you ask this question, you hear crickets on the other end of the phone, lightbulbs should be going off in your mind. If the host nation has not approved the shipment for import, I seriously doubt the delivery will arrive in 7 days. The processing time alone for import authorization can be 7 to 10 days.

Question 2: There is no question 2. Question 1 alone should answer the mail. Given the current area of operations, unless it is a T-wall, bunker, or other item that is being manufactured locally, the product is being imported and will require an import clearance issued by the host country.

Question 3: Okay, you insist on more. Assuming the product is local, ask for a location where you can meet to inspect the item. Now you have your poker face on. If you again get crickets on the phone, proceed with caution.

It is your reputation and the reputation of U.S. contracting and acquisition that are on the line. Trust is paramount in any operation, for I can assure you that in 7 days, at 2400 hours, the commander will send a followup email if the item is not delivered as advertised. And no, you won’t get a “thank you” in the mail if all works as planned. That is life. “Aw-shucks” come via email, while “hooahs” are put in a bottle and thrown in the desert to await the next flood for delivery. Get over it, and move on.

So, if I were king for a day, I would have an orientation for a week that takes KOs throughout their areas of responsibility. The KO would look the commander she supports in the eye and educate him about what the KO brings to the fight; the KO would also learn about the transportation processes and walk the ground she is going to fight on as a KO. This is how the ground commander does it when he executes a relief in place.

Okay, there is no time for that pie-in-the-sky scenario. So the KO must take the initiative to discover the key information nodes, find the person who has been there about a month ahead of him (that person will be most beneficial), and be prepared to work.

Program Managers in the Role of KO

Program management (AOC 51A) Soldier: All I know is, it was submitted to contracting over 3 weeks ago. Why they can’t just go sole source is beyond me. I have everything ready to execute. All I need is that contract released, and we’re bending metal.

Contracting (AOC 51C) Soldier: All a PM [program manager] knows is cost, schedule, and performance, and he can’t even begin to spell contracting.

Effective immediately, we should expand the KO gene pool and let contingency contracting commands be the vanguard in educating PMs (51A) and KOs (51C) who are at least level I in their respective careers to work in contingency contracting. One of our military’s greatest strengths has always been the cross-training of personnel.

Cross-training would do much to facilitate understanding of each respective acquisition specialty. PMs and junior KOs can work in the contingency contacting environment and aid the KO. All they need is a “right seat ride” with a KO shadowing them until the PM and the junior KO can begin transitioning and assuming more KO duties.

KO’s will argue that they don’t have time to babysit. Given that the bulk of the items being contracted are consumables—printer cartridges, paper, office supplies, tents, containerized housing units, and such—a PM and junior KO can be trained. We’d all be better for it, for we learn much by doing. The value added of this action is that the KO can now focus on the multimillion-dollar source selections or other actions that are more complex and require greater attention to detail, the PM can see the inner workings of the contracting world and can carry lessons learned to a future PM assignment, and the junior KO can obtain a little baptism by fire.

However, the attitude among contracting leaders sometimes seems to be that if you aren’t a level III 51C, you aren’t qualified. It happens in all organizations as we are a self-protecting species. We all have our corporate cultures, but this is the catch-22 that must be broken. It takes time to grow KOs, and though 51A Soldiers might not quote the FAR by paragraph and line number, they at least come with a solid baseline of knowledge and can learn. The same holds true for the junior KO.

Eating the young of the 51C career field is a bad practice as well. If contingency contracting leaders maintain that they want only level III-trained 51C KOs down range, how are we going to grow our junior ranks? Having level III-trained 51C personnel in every office may be desirable. But you fight with the KO force you have, not with the one you want. Sound familiar?

If this practice continues, we soon will have a talent gap. Then we’ll hire all the level III KOs who retire or face an estimated time of separation as contract support personnel, and our new junior personnel will lack the experience they could have gained had they gone down range. I am a firm believer that people will rise to the height of the bar. No, I am not advocating we fill every billet 100 percent with junior personnel. But I do submit that a junior KO could perform and assist with many tasks and thereby enable the senior KO to focus on more complex issues. Maintaining better communication with the CORs is just one such critical task.

So, if I were king for a day, I would expand the gene pool for KOs to include PMs and KOs who are level I in their respective career fields. I would advocate that we not treat these personnel the way that Shrek treated Donkey when Shrek was looking for a cohort to accompany him to find Lord Farquaad. Donkey kept screaming, “Pick me, pick me,” and Shrek just kept turning a blind eye until his hand was forced.

Bank Tellers and CORs

KO: I don’t understand who that COR thinks he is issuing a cure notice. I’m the KO.

COR: I’m an 11B. What am I doing being a COR? I can never get in contact with the KO. Fine. I have to get this moving, the CO [commanding officer] is on my butt. I’ll issue a cure notice. That will get the vendor’s attention.

We, the contracting community, set ourselves and that young trooper (often an E–5 or E–6) serving as a COR as an additional duty up for failure. We take an 11B, or any other available person, shake and bake them in a 1-hour class, and turn them loose to change the world—and 2 or 3 months later wonder why the contract performance is all fouled up.

If a KO has no idea what an 11B is, it is probable that an 11B has no idea what the FAR is or what the whole concept of contracting is about. The 11B wasn’t around KOs at the National Training Center or the Joint Readiness Training Center, and he didn’t hear of KOs at any simulation exercise or while assigned to his home station. Now, an 11B is the military occupational specialty for an infantryman. In generic terms, 11Bs are in every military service: They are the troopers who are put into every mission under the sun and work to make it happen. So, to get a better perspective of how the 11B feels when assigned to act as a COR, I propose the following: Starting tomorrow, we are going to put KOs through a 1-hour class, issue each one an M16A4 and complete battle rattle, send them on patrol, and see how things go.

But the military does not have a monopoly on this approach. Consider bank tellers. Banks will spend millions on an ad campaign to gain customers, but the one person in the bank who has the most interface with the customer—the one who will most influence the “customer experience”—is often the least paid, and possibly the least trained, bank employee: the teller. The same thing can happen in the world of contracting.

The COR is the eyes and ears for a KO. The COR has the mission of reconnaissance for the KO. The KO should let the COR help him. The COR knows what is going on as he lives at the forward operating base or operates in the environment where the work is being performed. But we route this COR through a 1-hour class, hand him a certificate, bless him to execute with little to no followup, and wait until the flaming email crosses our desk. It happens. Unfortunately, this scenario has the potential to evolve into a “Parson’s Construction” fiasco. (Google “Parson’s Construction Iraq” if you have no idea what I’m talking about.) And yes, the COR duty is one of many duties the Soldier has. Do I think KOs or CORs proceed with malice? No. But we don’t set the conditions for success, either. We need to show the COR some love.

If I were king for a day, what would I do? The reverse role mentioned earlier (11B versus KO) best communicates the point. Therefore, starting next week, I would have all KOs routed through a 1-hour class on patrol techniques, and, once a week for 24 hours, they would be required to conduct a route reconnaissance in the red zone with their 11B COR brethren. One week, they would be driver, the next week they would be in the 50-caliber machingeun turret, and so on. This quality time would foster better communication and a collaborative spirit between the KO and the COR. Extreme? Draconian? Yes, but think of the teambuilding that would evolve.

So, the KO community solution for CORs must be equivalent to what KOs would desire if they had to perform a route reconnaissance mission. If we do this, we’ll have a quality COR program. Give all CORs a satellite communications phone, digital camera, and laptop so they can communicate effectively with the KO. Empower the COR. No one shows up wanting to fail. What costs more, these items or the manpower required to recoup from a poorly executed contract?

KO Tour Lengths

KO 1 (Air Force): I have 20 days left, and my 6-month tour is over. I’ll have to file my TDY [temporary duty] settlement upon return.

KO 2 (Air Force): Has your replacement arrived?

KO 1: No. They’ve been delayed for some training in Kuwait.

KO 2: So how much cross-training will you get?

KO 1: I’m sorry. Can you repeat the question? I was confirming my departure flight date.

KO 1 and KO 2: Hey, Army, how many days left on your 12-month, I’m sorry, 15-month tour? Where do you file your TDY when you return?

Currently, we have 6-month tours for KOs (up from 4 months for Air Force personnel). The 6-month tour tends to work like this. The first month, the KO is learning; the last month, he’s marking days off a calendar. (We all do it, at least mentally.) Then we overlay the 7 to 10 days during which the KO will execute his rest and recuperation pass to Qatar. So the commander essentially achieves 4 months of combat effectiveness from a 6-month KO deployment. I’m not making a judgment here; this is merely the battle rhythm observed with 6-month deployments.

Many contracts are for services or span periods of performance that do not terminate when a unit rotates out of theater. To ensure that we have continuity in managing these contracts, we need to stagger KO rotations in relation to the relief in place and transfer of authority of combat units. Otherwise, the COR who we’ve trained and worked with departs when his parent unit departs, and the KO, junior KO, and PM have to train a whole new crew. It happens.

I understand that KOs represent low-density, high-demand skill sets. So are 11B infantrymen, pilots, explosive ordnance disposal specialists, military police, civil affairs officers, Special Forces Soldiers, and medics. But the home station can hire a KO easier than we can export one to a theater of operations.

On a positive note, the contracting command for Iraq and Afghanistan has held firm on requiring a replacement to be on the ground and a battle handoff conducted before the outbound person departs the theater of operations. This is not easy, but it appears to be working and ensures that replacement personnel are received and cross-trained. Most departing personnel are professional and have a vested interest in cross-training their successors because they remember what it was like when they arrived.

So if I were king for a day, effective immediately, all KO tours would be 12 months.

Email Management

The bottom line is that we should consider migrating offices to duty-specific, or “functional,” email accounts and halt the practice of using name-specific email accounts.

For example, we should begin using email addresses such as “KO1@iraq.mil,” with a display name of “Contracting Officer 1.” Using this email account format rather than a name-specific email account, such as “john.doe@iraq.mil,” will greatly facilitate continuity of communication, halt the transfer of the personal email (“pst”) file (as the file folders are assigned to an individual), and improve business operations since 90 percent of our business is communication.

A secondary benefit of this email format change is that it allows any level of leadership in the contingency contracting command to quickly view on line how the command is organized. For example, all display names of commodity contracts personnel might begin with “Commodity KO#1,” “Commodity KO#2,” and so on and be grouped together in one section of the email directory. Thus, the commander or section leader or customer could quickly locate the party he needs. No longer would you get “failed mail” because the last point of contact you had was redeployed. Trust me, with 6-month rotations, maintaining contact is a nightmare for vendors and within the contingency contracting command.

You may advocate establishing a pseudo email or “distribution” email account that allows for email to be sent to, for example, “KO1@iraq.mil” and then automatically forwarded to “john.doe@iraq.mil.” The problem with this format is that John Doe will now build his file folders and organize his files and assign them to his name and therefore to his pst file. When he departs, his successor will have to start from ground zero and contend with a pst file as a historical reference. Another concern with this approach is that as soon as John Doe replies to the inquiry forwarded to him from the “KO1@iraq.mil” email account, the value of the “KO1@iraq.mil” email address is lost. Why? Because most users invariably will hit “reply,” and the default email address that loads into the message for the reply will be the name-specific “john.doe@iraq.mil” email address. So the duty-specific email address of “KO1@iraq.mil” will not receive the reply, and the value of this email management tool will be lost.

Using name-specific email accounts often disrupts continuity of communication with local nationals and within our own commands whenever a new person arrives and backfills for someone with whom all parties are used to working. How many times have you lost a contact and tried to find their replacement within the same office?

Yes, you as the KO are going to get saturated by local nationals’ emails once they get the duty-specific email address. But this is no different than in the United States when vendors reach out to get the KO’s attention once they get his email address. A potential solution is to copy and paste a form letter and refer the vendor inquiry to the webpage that hosts all solicitations and educates the local national on the contracting process or the local host national business adviser. And remember, you now have that junior KO or PM to share these tasks. If we stop getting emails from local vendors, then we have real problems. The KO is as much an ambassador of economic development as he is a military contract manager.

An additional benefit of duty-specific email addresses is operational security. Take your own name, type it into Google or Facebook, and see what you find. How long do you think it takes before the local vendor population starts using the AKO or DKO email format once they have your name? The local vendors quickly learn it is “firstname.lastname@us.army.mil.”

So, if I were king for a day, all email accounts would be duty/functional-specific and would correlate to the duty assignment and would no longer be name-specific.

This conflict is not the first, and it certainly won’t be the last, to have contracting challenges. Just ask the Union Army Inspector General about his experiences in the Civil War. I’ve learned much from many different people, and this article is merely an opinion piece. A few rules of thumb and a path ahead for each focus area have been provided. What I do know is that, regardless of the bandwidth, rates of fire, or other metrics, the true strength of any organization is its people.

Lastly, remember this: Chuck Norris never fights, he just contracts for private security. Those who have been down range will get this one. Those who don’t get it, come on down, we’re hiring. Keep moving forward; failure is not an option.

Lieutenant Colonel Russ Dunford is assigned to the Program Executive Office Aviation in Huntsville, Alabama. He served as J–2/5/7 of the Joint Contracting Command Iraq/Afghanistan and as Foreign Military Sales Officer for the Multi-National Security Transition Command-Iraq Security Assistance Office from April 2007 to April 2008. He can be contacted at russell.dunford@us.army.mil.