The players #
Although much about procurement involves procedure and law, it is still fundamentally a people-driven process. Understanding the players in procurement, therefore, is essential to understanding how and why certain decisions are made.
The first set of players are part of the industry. Sometimes called contractors, vendors, suppliers, or industry partners (and we use all of these terms interchangeably), these are the folks who provide services and supplies to the government. In later chapters, we’ll cover some of the dynamics that go into vendor behavior.
When interacting with vendors, you may encounter individuals with many different functions. From the government’s side, you are likely to interact with program managers or project managers or technical leads. These individuals are typically designated as the key person in fulfilling the contract’s obligations to the government.
One of the big no-no’s in government contracting is to interfere with the contractor’s management of its employees. Government employees cannot exercise supervision or control over individual contractor employees, or else that might create a “personal services” contract. Relatedly, only the contracting officer (or a delegate) may alter the scope of a contract or direct contractors to do things. Bottom line: don’t try and micro-manage vendors or you might find yourself in trouble. If there are issues, the better course is to work with the acquisition team.
You may also encounter individuals who conduct business development (or “BD”) or “growth” functions. Sometimes these folks have titles like account manager or capture manager or public-sector sales. We’ll get into some of these distinctions later, but in the meantime, their job is to figure out what the government wants and position their company to be the winning vendor for upcoming contracts.
You may also encounter contracts managers or compliance managers from time to time. These folks are usually involved with making sure that the firm’s legal obligations are satisfied.
Within each company, there are internal hierarchies with titles like (in ascending order of seniority) Directors, Vice Presidents, Senior Vice Presidents, Executive Vice Presidents, Chief Operating Officers, and Chief Executive Officers.
The “acquisition function” #
The next set of key players are part of the “acquisition workforce.” Sometimes the individuals in the acquisition workforce are referred to as “1102s,” referring the OPM classification for the “Contracting Series”.
At the center of any acquisition is the Contracting Officer or “CO” (or, for those in the military, a “KO”). A Contracting Officer is key because she holds a “warrant,” which authorizes her to legally bind the federal government to a contract. Let’s reinforce that point: only a Contracting Office may legally bind the government to a contract.
Contracting Officers will often have many years of experience in the acquisition workforce, with hundreds — perhaps thousands — of hours dedicated to training and certifications. Typically, a civilian CO will have a certification called a “Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting” or “FAC-C,” at a level between 1 (at the low end) and 3 (at the high end). In the Department of Defense, a KO (again, what they call a CO) will have a “Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act” or “DAWIA” certification.
Typically, a Contracting Officer will work with one or more Contracting Specialists or “CS.” A Contracting Specialist is typically junior to a Contracting Officer, but will often be more intimately involved with the development and execution of federal contracts. They will also either hold FAC-C certifications or be working to obtain them.
In addition to a CS, the Contracting Officer will often delegate formal administrative responsibilities to a Contracting Officer Representative or “COR” during the performance of a contract. A COR is a major player in the performance of a contract, as they tend to be the lead point of contact between the government and industry. CORs also receive training and receive a certification called a “FAC-COR” at a level between 1 and 3, and will typically manage many contracts. That said, as a practical matter, unlike a CO or a CS, most CORs have other responsibilities beyond the acquisition function and more widely vary in their expertise.
Within the internal hierarchy of the acquisition function, there are typically titles like (in ascending order of seniority) Supervisors, Deputies, Chiefs, and Head of Contracting Authority (or “HCA”). At the very top of the acquisition food chain in an agency is the Chief Acquisition Officer and/or Senior Procurement Executive.
Sometimes, you may hear about the difference between “operations” or “policy” in procurement, and in doing so, encounter someone entitled a Procurement Analyst or “PA” within an agency. A PA is usually responsible for monitoring policy and compliance of the acquisition function. They are often former Contracting Officers or Contracting Specialists, but do not hold active warrants.
The program office #
If you’re reading this, there’s actually a decent chance that you’re part of what the acquisition team calls “the program office” (or sometimes “the mission”). The program office represents the part of the agency that needs supplies or services to carry out the legal functions of the agency. In lay terms, the program is “the customer.”
Although program offices vary wildly throughout government, the program office almost always plays a central, and perhaps the most critical, role in any procurement. That is because the program is responsible for defining the requirements and assisting in market research. We’ll cover these terms later, but it’s worth pausing and emphasizing this because it’s so important: the program is responsible for defining and documenting its needs.
A dirty little secret in procurement is that acquisition professionals and industry complain all the time about “poorly written requirements.” If you’re the customer, they’re talking about you. But here’s the thing: they’re not wrong! Because procurement is seen as boring or tedious or overly complex, a lot of requirements definition – even on the most important procurements – is delegated down the chain of command without much oversight or support from program-office leadership. If you want to improve your procurements, you might want to find a way to pay more attention to what you are actually buying.
The other CXO functions #
In addition to the CO and Program, a tech procurement will usually involve staff from at least three other offices: the Chief Information Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, and the General Counsel.
For the most part, the roles of the CIO, CFO, and GC are well defined within a procurement. The CIO is responsible for ensuring appropriate oversight and management of technical decisions. The CFO is responsible for ensuring that all fiscal and budgetary obligations are met. And the GC is responsible for managing legal compliance.
As discussed later related to FITARA, the Office of the Chief Information Officer plays an outsized role in technology procurement. Often, the CIO will actually manage contracts on behalf of program offices or maintain contract vehicles for use by program offices. If the CIO does not have sufficient oversight of a given tech procurement, it will be labeled as “shadow IT” and, if discovered, will likely be a target of consternation among management.
In most cases, there is a pretty well-defined review process where and when the various stakeholders will review and weigh in on a procurement. Occasionally, though, the roles will blur and fingers may start getting pointed at each other, particularly if things go sideways in a procurement.
For the most part, you’ll want to maintain solid relationships with each of these offices. But, be forewarned, tech procurement is filled with parochialism and turf battles.
The players described above are usually part of the same agency. But there are other agencies in the federal government that may affect a given procurement. In this section, we’ll cover the four main agencies that play a role in federal procurement.
General Services Administration #
The General Services Administration (GSA) is legally responsible for providing acquisition-related services to the federal government. Significantly, as discussed later in contract vehicles, the GSA manages the Multiple Award Schedules Program and several GWACs and government-wide BPAs (don’t worry, that’ll be explained later). The GSA also provides assisted-acquisition services and provision of direct services. Finally, the GSA provides a range of technology services, including through the Technology Transformation Services and the IT Category.
Small Business Administration #
The Small Business Administration (SBA) plays a significant role in helping agencies comply with policies related to “small-business” and “socioeconomic” goals, which we’ll cover in greater detail later. Additionally, the SBA provides financial support and certifications for small businesses under various programs.
Government Accountability Office #
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) plays two significant roles. First, it is the main venue for bid protests. Because the GAO resolves these legal disputes and provides written decisions, GAO precedent has a major effect on procurement practices. Second, the GAO legal determinations related to appropriations law.
Office of Management and Budget #
The last, but not least, major player in the federal procurement space is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). In particular, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy plays a major role in defining and supporting federal procurement policy. Other offices within OMB that play roles in tech procurement are the Office of the Federal Chief Information Officer and the US Digital Service. Both of these offices provide technical leadership that inform federal tech policy.