“Follow the FAR? Hah – Don’t Make Me Laugh”

These were the words of a career procurement specialist who shall remain unnamed, at an agency that shall remain unnamed, as the point is not to embarrass an individual or agency so much as it is to identify an attitude that is all too widespread in the federal procurement and contract management world.

And if you think I am overstating things, these words were uttered in a meeting with at least a dozen other procurement specialists, who mostly grinned and nodded agreement.

In context, the attitude being expressed was “we’ve been doing this thankless job for a long time, often under very difficult circumstances, and we know how to get things done, so don’t bore us with the fine print.”

One could even say that cutting corners and bending rules are reasonable risks for these people to be taking, considering the workloads, and time pressures, and even political pressures that they face.

In their minds, to dot every “i” and cross every “t” would mean getting through only a fraction of the work demanded of them every day—to no one’s appreciation—in fact, more likely with the result of poor performance ratings, and slow, or nonexistent promotions.

As a very senior federal manager once explained to me, “my job is mostly about managing risks. There is no possible way that I could stay on top of all the detailed rules and regulations and policies that govern what I do, so all I can really do is try to look after the things that might have the greatest adverse impact if they blow up, and hope I don’t get caught out.”

These are, for the most part, serious, dedicated, professional people. How could we have put them in such difficult circumstances? What can we do to help them, so they can do a great job, keep up with the workloads, and not feel that they have to cut corners to get there?

What if we could somehow automate the tedium of ensuring that the FAR and other regulations and policies are followed—make that part of the process automatic? Is that even possible?

Perhaps we should ask “Siri”? Or “Watson”?

The point being, if we can develop technologies smart enough to answer complex questions conversationally, or to crush human Jeopardy champions, certainly we figure out a way to help government procurement people do their jobs without feeling like they have to play the system just to get things done.

Is that game not worth the candle?

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Peter Sperry

Anyone remotely familiar with federal agency management is painfully well aware that ALL admin regulations and directives (procurement, HR, budget, accounting, IT, security etc.) are broken to the point of being major obstacles to effective delivery of public services. Which is exactly why government executives should follow them to the letter. Obsolete, counterproductive and just plain stupid rules will never be reformed unless it becomes painfully obvious just how out of whack they really are. Every time a government manager or executive uses a workaround to evade a mind numbingly stupid requirement, they help the advocates for that requirement argue it is not a meaningful burden on agency operations but a positive force for good. The only way anyone without a certificate of election can build support for new and better admin regulations is to strictly adhere to the current policies until the need to change them becomes painfully obvious to those with the elected authority to do so.

Jim Tyson

In law school I studied “Federal Taxation”. We had to read the Federal Tax Code which makes the FAR seem like “Dick and Jane”. So where’s the “TurboTAX” for the FAR? Hmm.. “TurboFAR”? Someone should trademark that!

Eva Fulton

As a former contract specialist, I’ve observed and walked the tough line. I was not well liked for following the rules and it made hitting the marks for ratings very difficult but I managed. One could think that “metrics” get in the way of progress, but then what work does not get done? it is a tough balancing act indeed….

Jim Tyson

Eva, thanks for your comment. Thankfully, there are many hardworking dedicated public servants, like yourself, that follow the rules of the FAR, exercise good judgement and meet or exceed the expected outcome. Unfortunately, I find many are overworked and lack the tools needed to perform at a high level. Navigating through the solicitation, proposal, pre-award, award, delivery and closeout stages is very difficult in the best of circumstances but to manage the lifecycle from cradle to grave with little or insufficient technology is where I find fault. As Steve Jobs said, “What’s important is that you have a faith in people, that they’re basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they’ll do wonderful things with them.” I believe the tools are missing and a solution using technology that assists COR’s, CO’s and managers with compliance, oversight, knowledge and skills, collaboration and reporting can change the playing field for all involved.