Pivoting to an Outcomes-Driven Approach: Death to the FTE

The last two and a half years have taught us a lot about, well, everything. But the pandemic shed special light on project delivery in the public sector. In fact, while “global pandemic” was probably covered in most agencies’ continuity of operations procedures plans, no one could have predicted what exactly this would look like, and how it has changed the landscape of work forever.

When quickly pivoting to remote and distributed work, we learned the importance of being flexible and nimble, especially around changing guidance, conditions and priorities. Within the context of IT, we have long used agile methodologies for development and deployment and found this project management approach has worked particularly well in a quickly evolving, yet unknown, environment.

Want to know what hasn’t worked? Many of our acquisition strategies. Many contracts coming out CIO shops have adapted to support agile development methodologies. For example, this might look like not requiring contract modification for every deliverable change when working in agile sprints. But other acquisition shops have been slower to adapt to our rapidly changing environment.

Requirements in Requests for Proposals (RFP) often default to bodies — or, in gov-speak, Full-Time Equivalents (FTE). It’s the easiest way to think about staffing a project, with a dedicated team, historically working on-site. But this approach does not necessarily bring the best of the best, the right resource at the right time, to a dynamic operational environment.

For example, many firms will staff an FTE who spends 50% of his time as a technical writer, 15% doing 508 compliance, 25% doing graphic design, and 10% outreach. The challenge is, this person is out there working on an island, and while he may be an amazing technical writer, those same skills may indicate that he’s “okay” at outreach, but that’s not his specialty. He may get bored or frustrated, and leave. In turn, you get costly and frustrating turnover, and wonder why your contract can’t just get the staffing right.

You may have seen this with some of your large contractors (or systems integrators, as the case calls for.) While there are a few high performers, the team experiences high turnover, you spend a lot of time onboarding and training, and the team is never quite optimized. Mixing incompatible skills into one FTE gives you the worst of both worlds.

I propose that acquisition and program leaders take a different approach. Instead of focusing on requirements and FTE headcount, focus on outcomes. Keep a core team to maximize project knowledge share, but also allow for a matrixed approach to staffing that brings the right talent at the right time for the best outcome. Or better yet, let vendors decide if they want matrixed or full-time teams and if they want to use specialists or want “T-shaped people” who have deep knowledge in one area but are also able to make connections across disciplines. Their culture and organizational structure should dictate how they get to the required outcome.

Think about it like this: When you take your car to the mechanic and tell them the problem — they only look for that problem. When you give them the situation and your desired outcome — such as taking the grocery-getter on a cross-country adventure — they will inspect and test to find how to get to that outcome. You probably don’t want the mechanic running the code analysis to do the detailing, but both need to get done.

Draft key personnel requirements for the core team, particularly the program or project leader and workstream leads. But for the remaining functions, allow for a partial-FTE approach. The example above allows you to hire the very best 508 compliance resource for the 15% of project you need. You get a graphic designer who has been on award-winning creative teams, and who won’t get bored by part-timing as a technical writer. You get a dedicated team, but the best resources you need when you need them.

And why is this important? Because we operate in a dynamic environment. Leveraging agile (little-a) methodologies, contract support can realign resources and prioritizes as operational factors fluctuate.
To the acquisition community, we offer three suggestions for structuring requirements to allow the government to swiftly and fairly access the right resources at the right time:

  1. Add additional contract line items (CLINs), even with zero hours to begin with, for work you anticipate might be required in the future
  2. Consider adding contract labor categories (LCATs) for roles that can give support during a surge or special project but don’t necessarily need to be badged and cleared, using non-disclosure agreements or other solutions
  3. Use a statement of objectives in lieu of a performance work statement, so that vendors must tell you in the proposal process how they will get you the desired objectives

Jennifer Folsom is a dynamic, high-energy leader with a proven record of growing all sizes of professional services firms while growing a family. She is the Vice President of Growth at ICF, a Washington, DC- based global management consulting firm.

A human capital expert, she leverages a people-centered approach to drive revenue in organizations from start-up to Big 4. An-oft quoted expert in corporate culture, Jennifer promotes the notion that the multiple in firm valuation starts with the people. Her colleagues cite one of her greatest strengths as the “ability to cut through the noise to solve an issue.”

She’s also the mom of 3 sons, 20-year-old twins and a 14-year old-firecracker. Wife. Daughter. Sister. Friend. Yogi. Old lady soccer team player. Amateur farm-to-table chef. Vegetable gardener. Paddleboarder. Bourbon lover. Runner. Reader. Writer. Jennifer loves her work but knows that living your whole best life is the ultimate key to success.

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