Contracting community looks for lessons in crisis


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The one chance contracting officers get to shine will like every other event go virtual this year. The annual conference of the National Contract Management Association occurs not just during a continuing resolution, but also when lots of new and complicated rules have taken hold. Craig Conrad is NCMA’s chief executive. He told the Federal Drive about some of the plans for this year’s Government Contracts Management Symposium.

Interview transcript:

Kraig Conrad: We definitely know our committees of members are very focused on what we’ve been through. We went a long way in a short time, and it’s really going to inform those conversations we’re going to want to have at GCMS, or the Government Contract Management Symposium. We’re really going to draw on what our NCMA president Melissa Starinsky is calling on our community to do, which is, let’s learn from this crisis. And the theme this year is the path to resilience. It draws and captures a lot of that dedication that we have to advance the practice of contract management and certainly the broader acquisition related functions in this world that need to be more agile and more resilient. And one final element of that is that that we shape that, that we don’t just sit back and let others dictate that and to the format, the certainly zoom fatigue is out there. Can’t imagine anyone who’s not tired of day-long zoom events. So with that we are refreshing the format. We’re creating a lot of opportunities for that impromptu interaction between attendees. Think of it as you’re in the hallway at a live event and you those impromptu moments are really very powerful. And we’re doing a lot of on-demand content, so that someone can watch in advance at their leisure. And then during the event, have live dialogue with their peers. Think of that as a Movie Club, if you will. And we’re bringing back the very popular innovation alleys. These are showcases of artificial intelligence, machine learning, data visualizations, things like that, that really offer examples of how our community is full of powerful solution makers. Just if I may a little bit more about the content, we have Soraya Correa, who’s going to be our host. She’s really going to lead a great lineup of speakers that include the heads of contract and contracting activity from Air Force, Army and Navy. That brings, of course, Maj. Gen. [Cameron] Holt back to the main stage of GCMS. But he’ll be joined by [Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy for procurement] Cindy Shaver and Becky Weirick[, the executive director of the Services Acquisition Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Procurement]. They will discuss the view from the top of this new agile environment that we’re in. What are those methods? What are the processes that their teams are doing to get us through this uncertain time? And I’m also incredibly excited to announce that we have Joy White, executive director of space and missile systems center, to really close this out. She is hopefully — we’re still working on details — going to be spending her time talking about the Space Force and and I’m going to be geeking out. I am big fan of what’s coming there. And certainly there’s a lot of conversations that the world knows about how they are ramping up and preparing to put this great branch into operations. But the other element here that’s exciting is that Joy is going to serve as our host for next year’s World Congress. And as she closes out GCMS, she’s going to offer a preview of what’s to come. And I’m sure she’s going to join us all in hoping that we will be in person in Denver next July. And finally, we’re really excited about launching a new certification at GCMS. This is our new entry level certification. It is the assessment exam for our ANSI-Accredited contract management standard. So we’re really trying to create and cut a new path for those new to the profession and help them on their professional journey. So it’s very exciting, it’s going to cover both buyer and seller. And we’ll have a bit more information along the way, but certainly close it out at GCMS.

Jared Serbu: Let me pull on the thread that you raised a minute ago on on what’s learned from this. What are some examples of the things that you think the contracts community has learned from this experience?

Kraig Conrad: Well, there’s certainly a lot of innovating things that our members are doing and that goal of trying to benefit from this in years to come, certainly the pain and the immediacy of this crisis. Our members were clearing red tape, acting fast and doing really good work on behalf of the American people, but that came out in things like price competitions and challenges, FAR flexibilities and non-FAR authorities where our members were really quickly getting out there, finding suppliers and awarding contracts. I think there’s an element here that reflects agility, certainly about testing solutions and capabilities, and really being prepared for high speed-to-need. Some of the other examples, back in July, we had really good conversation with Hondo Gertz at our World Congress, really talking about how COVID-19 helped to accelerate through this disruption. His view is really, you got to shake up the status quo. And as he called it, scraping off the barnacles, a really great nautical term. But he gave those examples that the Navy has done to really leverage the preparation that they’ve been doing. But bring in sophisticated supply chain mapping. That’s been really powerful, not just on the acquisition side, but the procurement side. Data Analytics, we certainly have been talking about that for years, but now we have a chance to apply it. And I think ultimately, how do we, through this entire process, prepare ourselves for that future. So there’s a lot of documenting and iterating, to ensure that when we go through this again — and there will be a future crisis; there always are crises — that we’re prepared. I think the other area that was interesting, and Air Force had a good example of that, is really coming together to find a patient transport vehicle to transport those COVID-19 patients. The concept that they brought in was really bringing the team together. And it’s not just the need-definer, that’s going to sit in a room and define what it is. They really went out and said, let’s get these engineers together. And as Major General Holt likes to call them, the contracting ninjas, and then join them with the functional experts to get that design and procured prototype out the door as fast as you can. And in their case, it was in a matter of weeks. I think the final thing that we’re learning, and this is something that’s going to be telling for us to come and that’s where we ended up in a strong competitive environment. As both local state and federal procurement operations were really pushing for the same health care procurements. It created that competition that in absence of any coordinated effort, challenged everyone’s ability to get fair price and really drew on that supply chain. This has defined an opportunity for certainly our community to work toward future solutions and NCMA, as well as a few other procurement associations, are pushing toward how do we find solutions and be prepared for that. So the next time the crisis comes in, if there isn’t a coordinated effort along the way, that we can step in and help guide our members to meet the missions of the members we serve.

Jared Serbu: And lastly, Craig, in our last minute or so here, people like Hondo Gertz and General Holt throughout this pandemic have just been gushing with praise for your members, at how they’ve adapted and overcome the various challenges along the way. But what are you hearing from members at the deck plate level about what some of those challenges have been? You mentioned the issue of competition for scarce commodities but what else are you hearing?

Kraig Conrad: Well, certainly a lot of positive stuff. I don’t want to end in our last minute on anything negative but what we are hearing is the the many leaders out there like Major General Holt, like Hondo Gertz, certainly like Cindy Shaver and Becky Weirick. They’re pushing hard to try to open up and create top cover for our members to to really do good things on behalf of the American people in crisis. Many of these things that have happened would not have happened if they were worried, if they felt that they didn’t have some sort of air cover to go out and innovate, to do new things, to do different things. Certainly all while staying within the FAR where you can and drawing on other authorities where you need to. But it’s really been positive. It’s been that we are together in this. We are one community and by coming together, we’re serving the American public the best we can.

Jared Serbu: Kraig Conrad is CEO of the National Contract Management Association. Their virtual symposium is December 3 and 4.

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