Urgent Capability Acquisition (UCA)
Policies & Guidance
Types of UONs
Production and Deployment
Operations and Support
Costs and Funding
Test & Evaluation
How to use this site
Each page in this pathway presents a wealth of curated knowledge from acquisition policies, guides, templates, training, reports, websites, case studies, and other resources. It also provides a framework for functional experts and practitioners across DoD to contribute to the collective knowledge base. This site aggregates official DoD policies, guides, references, and more.
DoD and Service policy is indicated by a BLUE vertical line.
Directly quoted material is preceeded with a link to the Reference Source.
Case Study Overview
Additional success stories will be added to this page as more applicable examples become available.
The following best practices are from DAU’s Powerful Example case study, “JRAC Helps Warfighters Overcome Urgent Threat from Enemy Drones,” 6 August 2019.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
Rapidly responding to enemy threats against U.S. Service members requires an agile acquisition system and the active collaboration of many parties in order to succeed. Making all of these pieces work together to provide timely solutions, while respecting the U.S. taxpayer, can be a challenging task. By carefully following the five phase approach for Joint Urgent Operational Needs (JUONs), the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell was able to quickly deliver critical, anti-drone capabilities to deployed Warfighters.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
At a high level, the steps are the following:
- The Urgent Warfighter Need is recognized and validated by a designated authority,
- A sponsor is identified for the resolution of the issue,
- A plan is developed to quickly address the capability gap,
- Resources are provided to accomplish the plan and rapidly deploy the capability.
URGENT ACQUISITIONS – A JUON Case Study – Intro
(This video is an introduction. Video segments applicable to each topic are included in the toggles below)
Lessons Learned and Best Practices
Quoted portions below are insights provided directly from team members in the videos. Non-quoted portions are narrations from the video script.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
Emerging threats require a rapid response to save lives.
Addressing Urgent Operational Needs is the Department of Defense’s highest priority.
Organizations should have a network of trained urgent need technical experts that understand rapid authorities before an urgent need arrives.
Once an urgent requirement is recognized and validated by a competent authority, a sponsor is identified for resolving the issue, a plan is developed to counter the threat, then resources are provided to accomplish the plan and quickly deploy the capability.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
“What is the capability gap? What is it that the operating forces can’t do and need to be able to do? And only once there’s a good understanding of that capability gap can you get to work on figuring out what the solution is.”
“Requirements do change a lot, and they’re mostly driven by the adversary. The adversary has a large vote in what that requirement looks like. So, as they adapt technology and apply it to their nefarious purposes, then we have to change the requirement in order to meet those needs from the combatant commander.”
“The environment that we have created for this urgent operational need is one that’s all about partnership and speed. And at the end of the day, what we always try to stick to is schedule. Schedule is key.”
“In order for an urgent operational need to be successful, you have to power down authority and responsibility to the lowest levels, simply because you don’t have the time to go off and check on every single thing.”
“That’s a new feeling for some people within the acquisition community because they are used to top cover, vetting every decision that gets made. You have to trust your people.”
“Whoever is executing that JUON, they just need to be agile and ready for any changes to occur.”
“Getting an 80% solution to the warfighter in seven or eight weeks is much more valuable than getting a 95% solution in two years.”
“It’s critical that the enterprise, that all the people understand the priority of an urgent need that’s described in DoD Directive and DoD Instruction. Understanding the priority that the Defense Department places on an urgent need allows us to energize everybody at every part of the process and make sure that everybody understands, ‘This is your number one priority, this is the first thing you’re going to work on today, and you’re going to work on it until we’ve solved today’s problem.”
URGENT ACQUISITIONS – A JUON Case Study
Phase 1 – Requirements Development
Sponsor Assignment and Team Building
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
When sponsorship of an urgent warfighter need is assigned, a Program Manager must assemble a team both within the organization and by tapping into external, cross-functional resources.
Robust coordination with and communication between services, agencies, vendors, allies and other stakeholders is crucial.
Micromanagement is NOT possible in an agile environment.
Maintaining visibility of all efforts before senior leadership is crucial to ensuring necessary resources are provided.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
“The Department of Defense, the U.S. Government, and our Allies have many centers of technical expertise and acquisition excellence that can apply considerable capability to assist us in quickly constructing a solution to rapidly emerging enemy threats.”
“The ‘team of teams’ and ‘network of networks’ we form connects the Department in a ‘Whole of Government’ approach and fully leverages the contributions that industry, academia, and our allies can make to finding viable solutions. Research labs have great capability to problem solve but you need a Program Manager that can take their ideas through the solution’s life cycle from production to fielding and final disposition – a good PM can integrate the entire effort.”
“A solution sponsor is generally assigned by the joint rapid acquisition cell or the JRAC. Then they determine which service or department has the best capabilities and is able to field that capability rapidly to the war fighter.”
“You don’t have time to go and screen through resumes and hand-select a team. You have to look for organizations that you can leverage in order to go after this rapid requirement. You’re looking for organizations that can take the ball on day one or day two and run with it.”
“You need the requirements people, the resourcing people, acquisition people, and you need the representatives from the operations people. Building your network ahead of time allows you to very rapidly introduce a new problem, begin generating solutions to that problem, make decisions about what solution you’re going to pick, and then execute that solution as quickly as possible.”
“The Program Manager is usually put into a very tight box of requirements, schedule, and budget. We try to relieve them of that box by saying schedule is the most important thing.”
“We have a small, lean organization. At the end of the day, it’s about the War Fighter and I have to trust my team. I don’t have time to micromanage. It’s all about empowering your folks to go out there and execute on a daily basis in order to get the job done.”
“If you want to go fast for anything, being small is very important, having a lean, small team. When you have a lean organization, the decision-making process is quicker.”
“The first response was, we immediately got hold of the requirements folks, to make sure we understood exactly what the urgent need was. When an urgent need comes in the requirements are at a very high level.”
“The hardest part frankly from the get-go was defining the requirement and figuring out, ‘What do we even need to solve here? What is the problem?'”
“When we identified those top-level requirements, we broke up into teams to look at each one of them. We had a systems engineer leading the overall effort, and then we had a team looking at detect, we had a team looking at identify, a team looking at track, and a team looking at defeat.”
“The program manager has to weigh a lot of different things, but one of the most important is the coordination and synchronization of the team and how to maintain the buy-in from the team and keep them moving along the path to success.”
“We put together a week-by-week schedule, to meet that monthly schedule, and that week-by-week schedule turned into a daily schedule.”
“There’s a certain creative nature that’s required with program managers for urgent responses in order to shorten that delivery time.”
“It was valuable to be able to talk to a cross component, to my Army counterpart, to the Navy counterpart, as well as government agency counterparts. We were able to have open lines of communication where we could trade stories, lessons learned, data information, test results, our communications with vendors and industry to really…to leverage that information to better our own programs.”
“That sharing’s been very beneficial, we’ve heavily leveraged the Army and the Navy and the Marine Corps as well, which has been immensely helpful. When we share the same components, to get the best value out of those components as well.”
“You have to inform the leadership that there are going to be changes over time and that you have to have some level of flexibility.”
“Our senior leadership here actually has a database that allows us to update daily. We brief MAJCOM and Pentagon officials on a monthly basis. That allows us to give them the latest and greatest of what’s going on in this operational need.”
URGENT ACQUISITIONS – A JUON Case Study
Phase 2 – Sponsor Assignment and Team Building
Rapid Funding and Solution Acquisition
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
Everyone needs to be knowledgeable on flexible funding and contracting strategies such as RAA, ATR, BTR, OTAs, and UCAs.
Money to proceed must be moved from other, existing sources; there is no pot of money waiting to be spent on rapid acquisitions.
All acquisitions of urgent need solutions, despite their urgency must be justified and documented.
Strategic messaging is important and is crucial to ensure individuals in different areas of responsibility are able to clearly and concisely communicate their needs and requirements to each other.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
“Quickly identifying funding for urgent need solutions greatly enhances a rapid response. Congress provides the Department with funding for specific purposes. When an Urgent Warfighter Need, such as the enemy’s use of UAS arises, funds will be identified and transferred from where they were originally slated to where they are now needed for the higher priority urgent requirement. These funds can be moved using Above or Below Threshold Reprogrammings or Rapid Acquisition Authority.”
“Everything is happening at once. So, you’re doing your planning, your development, procurement, contracting; all the pieces are happening at once.”
“It’s key to remember that there’s no pot of money available to support urgent needs.”
“Prior to requesting any funds, we have to define the requirement and the solution. And in doing so, we develop cost estimates, we determine what programs may already have a solution or a partial solution that we can implement.”
“Inside of urgent acquisitions, it’s critically important to get the funding early and to prime the pump. Getting that funding early allows the Program Manager to start taking deliberate actions. “
“The spend plan is a major component of responding to an urgent acquisition. There needs to be confidence that you not only have identified a solution but you also are aware of the cost of the solution.”
“There can be an impact to other programs. All that has to be weighed in deciding who is the bill payer and what the impact will be, not just in the current fiscal year, but long term. “
“You’re almost always going to take away funds from something else. The resourcing community is going to help define what that offset is, so that senior leaders can make a decision, understanding the trade-offs that are involved with producing a specific interim solution.”
“Our initial effort is to basically see if we can find the funds within the services or the defense agencies.”
“We often find that different funds are available across different appropriations. Sometimes you’ve got procurement funds that are available. Sometimes it’s operations and maintenance. Sometimes it’s R&D funds. The availability of those funds will help you select both with your requirement, what you actually want to go buy, and the acquisition strategy, understanding that fast is the most important factor in our deliberations.”
“We have Below Threshold Reprogramming, Above Threshold Reprogramming, and then you have something call Rapid Acquisition Authority. Initially we were able to add some money, through a Below Threshold Reprogramming action. That got us moving with a few million dollars.”
“Once a component has been identified as being the executive agent for the effort, we will have to administratively move the funds from one account to another account. There could be various ways that we will do this. If it’s Below Threshold, we can just do the action by ourselves, just move the funds over. However, if it’s beyond a certain level, we would have to seek permission from the Office of Management and Budget and the Congress.”
“One of the great things about using Rapid Acquisition Authority is that you can use any color of money. This helps immensely because a lot of times, there’s a shortage of a certain type of funds. What you do in Rapid Acquisition Authority is you move money from pockets of funds that the Congress has already approved and you’re moving it to some other initiative.”
“We communicated with JRAC and we went over to Congress and briefed our approach for Counter-small UAS to ensure that they agreed with our approach and they agreed with moving the money from sources that they had pre-approved.”
“Contracting is very important, particularly in this program where there’s an urgent timeline. Knowing how hard it is to have a contract mechanism in place, we canvassed the entire industry and pursued every type of contract action in order to get a contract in place and start producing, deploying and sustaining equipment in the field.”
“Our initial contracting strategy was to leverage contracts we already had in place. However, those did not move rapidly enough so we ended up working with UCAs or Undefinitized Contract Actions. Those are allowed to be processed quicker.”
“Using other people’s contracts and using MIPRs and partnering with the Navy, and the Marine Corps, and the Army, and the Air Force Research Labs has been immensely helpful to us.”
URGENT ACQUISITIONS – A JUON Case Study
Phase 3 – Rapid Funding and Solution Acquisition
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
Look for solutions through all available technologies that Industry, Academia, or our allies can offer, either partially or fully.
Get out of the office and onto the range. Experiment, test, analyze, repeat.
It’s okay to fail, but it’s important to fail quickly, address the problems and continue moving forward.
Constant communication with all stakeholders is crucial.
Stay flexible and remain adaptive as requirements and enemy tactics will evolve.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
“Risk must shift from the warfighter to the acquisition system. A 70% solution now is better than a 100% solution five years from now. During periods of conflict, the schedule for delivering capability quickly is more important than its cost or perfect performance.”
“We’re looking for an interim solution. Something that’s good enough to make it to the battlefield right away. And it’s not necessarily going to be perfect. It’s not always going to have the perfect performance you desire and there may be limitations to that capability.”
“We sought out commercial, off-the-shelf systems to put some capability into the field — an interim solution. And then we developed a system of systems with different increments. We conducted a best-of-breed for each of the components within that system of systems. And then we improved those systems incrementally to deliver something to the field with a better capability.”
“You have to evolve with the threat. That’s why we say it’s a best of breed solution. For the detect mechanism, one day it may be Radar X but tomorrow it may be Radar Y. These pieces and parts have to be interchangeable in order to evolve with that threat. If they’re not, you’re beholden to the system that you have and you’ll never be able to keep pace with that threat. “
“We have to be taking risks or we’re never going to get to fielding any capability. We don’t have five to ten years to field a system. We have months. Not everything that you choose is going to be a home run. We have to be willing to take the risk and understand that we’re going to fail, but we’re going to learn from it.”
“Sit down with your people and tell them, “It’s okay to fail.” You’ve got to embrace that yourself. That was one of the things that I had to do very early on, is realize that I was going to fail more times in a shorter amount of time than I’d ever done in my career.”
“We highly leveraged our partners from the United States Army in that they were going after the same threat set that we were. So that collaborative effort, specifically with the Army paid tremendous dividends for the Marine Corps. And we were able to leverage their research and development efforts. We didn’t have to duplicate those, so it saved time, money, and resources.”
“We had an existing program that we owned the rights for the data and the design. So, we knew that we could rapidly upgrade the system.”
“We did a lot of testing. We went to the field a lot. We failed a lot early on. We learned a lot and then we went back to the field again. We measured our results and then we went back to the lab in a continuous cycle until we got to the point where we had a solution that was reliable, dependable, and that we would feel comfortable giving to the warfighter to protect them.”
“Warfighter feedback was one of those most important aspects as we were going through the development process. As we took in that feedback from the warfighter we would quickly then assess what they were looking for and what type of capability they were getting at. There were things that we would have never thought of that based upon their feedback made small, incremental changes to the system, but small changes that they thought were incredibly important.”
“We were constantly in discussions with the warfighter to understand, “What is it that you want? How do you want to know when there’s a drone? How do you activate the system?” Where to deploy the system. We would have weekly VTCs, video teleconferences, with the warfighters getting feedback. We would also have out government people that would train the users on how to operate the system, so we’d constantly communicate with our deployed Field Service Representatives on how to make the system better.”
“The ‘scrum’ came to be as a 15-minute meeting, three times a week. And the purpose was just to get everyone in the same room to talk about what was going on. We use it as an opportunity for each of the Program Managers to speak up and say, ‘Hey, I need X, Y, or Z.’ And that could be from an engineer, it could be from a logistician, it could be from a training representative, contracting, FM, whomever. We’re far more effective when we work together, in small teams, face-to-face, than we are trying to bounce ideas off of one another via email.”
URGENT ACQUISITIONS – A JUON Case Study
Phase 4 – Solution Development
Expedited Fielding, Sustainment and Final Disposition
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
Knowledgeable Field Service Reps are essential to providing in-theater repairs, training and operational feedback on immature systems.
Warfighter feedback is crucial to continuing product development.
Fielded solutions must be compatible with other friendly systems.
Host nation rules and laws must be followed.
Reference source: DAU Powerful Example
“When you send technology to the field, you must ensure that the Warfighter understands and accepts the purpose, capabilities and limitations of the solution, has sufficient training or Contractor Field Service Representative Support to operate the capability, and has adequate logistical support to repair and maintain the system.”
“Obviously the most important thing is getting that capability to the war fighters. War fighters are very ingenious people. And when you get capabilities to soldiers, they’ll figure out how to work it, break it, or make use of it.”
“The first person that that soldier interacts with is a field service rep, and their ability to convey how this equipment works and what their comfort level in fixing it, and teaching them all the specializations that they’ll need to operate that equipment is absolutely vital as you start fielding equipment to the soldiers down range.”
“Communications was key both for developing and fielding capability not only here but abroad. So, you had that strategic messaging to the leadership but you also had that tactical messaging, the messaging to the folks that were actually handling the stuff. Here’s what we’re delivering, here’s the initial capability you’re getting. It doesn’t do everything you wanted but it does something. It gives you something more than what you had before. And don’t worry, more is coming. We’ll field, we’ll test, we’ll train, and we’ll just keep evolving it and make it the best product we can and give the solution that capability to the end user as soon as we can.”
“For an urgent operational need, an operational assessment in the field is critically important and needs to be performed soon after the system has become operational. The importance of the operational assessment is to get feedback to the developer to make sure that the system is working appropriately in the environment that it’s deployed in.”
“The environment is always different when you get downrange and there are things you’re not going to anticipate.”
“Our job definitely isn’t done once they’re fielded. Once we get the system into theater, our job does not stop there. We’ve got to support these systems. We track repairs and failures and look for trends and we do analysis on these systems. We train the sailors how to use these systems and where to get help if something goes wrong and they need a part.”
“It does take some diligence in understanding what’s out there in the field and we work to make sure that we can seamlessly integrate into that warfighting picture, not impact any other systems that are in the battlefield, yet provide that capability that they requested.”
“It’s very important that you work with the combatant commander to get the host nation’s approval. When placing electronic countermeasures into theater, you don’t want it to interfere with any of the host nation’s equipment. And they have their own laws that you have to abide by.”
“The disposition of urgent needs happens in a deliberate fashion. The COCOM gives his recommendation as to whether the urgent need was successful.”
“If we decide this is a capability that we want to keep in the department, but is really necessary for the current warfight, you the PM will be responsible for sustaining this gear for perhaps years. If we decide we don’t need it for the current fight and we’re done with it, then you as the PM need to figure out how we’re going to dispose of the item. So, you’ve got to think of this as a mini-acquisition program, everything from the beginning of taking that requirement and breaking it down and how quickly can we provide a plan, get it executed. How do you develop it? How do you field it? How do you sustain it? And then what do you do to disposition the item at the end? So as a program manager, this may be the only time in your career, you see all those cycles going on in the same time in one program.”
URGENT ACQUISITIONS – A JUON Case Study
Phase 5 – Expedited Fielding of Solutions, Sustainment, and Final Disposition
Scenarios and Interviews with Experts in the Trenches
The following interviews are based on first-person accounts from Program Managers, Contracting Officers, and other functionals, told conversationally and candidly. No program names or descriptions are mentioned, and the interviewees are identified only by their function.
Based on past experiences with multiple quick reaction efforts, the interviewees shared their approaches to a new hypothetical UON, JUON, or JEON.
The intention is to give the reader several virtual mentors who can demonstrate how to think through the process while reviewing and implementing policy.
The interviewer’s questions are bold font, followed by the interviewee’s answer in regular font.
DISCLAIMER: The opinions expressed and practices described in these interviews do not necessarily reflect the opinions of DAU or the official policies of the Department of Defense.
Virtual Mentor #1 - Program Manager Interview
It’s late on a Friday afternoon when a second lieutenant runs into your office and tells you to drop everything—the Program Executive Officer (PEO) needs you now to talk about a UON that’s coming down. As you race to the conference room and the briefing begins, what goes through your mind?
I need to know the What and the Who. That’s what drives all my future actions.
- The first thing I look for is the user story—what did we receive and what can I glean from it. I’m looking at factual rather than just perspective. I need to understand the facts behind the requirement, the high-confidence information versus the low-confidence information.
- Once I can focus on high-confidence information, my thoughts shift to the players. Who’s involved on the operational side? Space? Special Forces? Air Combat Command? Once I know which world it’s in, I’ll know who to connect to, acquisition sources, dollars. Then I can neck down.
- After I understand the operational community, then who else should be on the team? Joint? Services? Highly classified activity?
After I know the What and the Who, I focus on the schedule, on what drives my timeline. Which PEO? What’s the specific ask? Do we not have existing capability? Do we need rapid prototyping? What’s the task at hand?
Answering these questions reveals the players to be involved and I can begin to deconstruct the schedule into the critical path. I’m looking at the critical path and the right people for the team. If the timeline is too long, we’ll need to figure out how to crash the schedule.
When you say, “crash the schedule,” what do you mean by “crash”?
Crashing the schedule is a program manager term.
You basically have your standard schedule, based on standard processes. In your traditional process, everything is serial.
When you “crash,” you’re looking at how can I effectively apply resources or make decisions that allow me to take things off the critical path and shorten it, or work actions in parallel.
- I can crash the schedule by not doing activities. For example, let’s not do the testing. Instead, let’s just go right in. Eh, probably not going to do that.
- I can crash the schedule by going from eight-hour workdays to three shifts if I’m looking at a production line.
- I can crash the schedule expanding my team’s work week. Is it a five-day work week or is it a seven-day work week? We’ve gone seven days, but with the understanding of the team.
There’s a culture with an urgent operational need that understands that we’re going light, we’re going lean, and there will be a breather at the end. You build the A-team. You bring in the right people who have the right experiences, and attitudes, who know how this is going to play out.
So crashing the schedule just basically means to apply the resources to get the performance into, say, one year. You add three shifts or you add two days or you cut out workload or you run things in parallel.
- If you’re crashing the schedule by running in parallel, you’re testing at the same time that you’re doing the coding. You’ve got your user there, right? So that allows you to crash things and quickly turn to each other and say, “Hey, does this make sense?” and they’re right there with an answer.
The policy doesn’t tell you how to marshal resources in your mind before your first steps. What are your personal guidelines?
From the program manager perspective, cost, schedule, and performance are the three factors you have to work with. Those three are a closed system, like a balloon: you squeeze on one part and the other parts pop up. The culture has to be that schedule is king. You can’t say performance is king and demand a short schedule without asking for a lot of money. Or you can’t say money is king, but I need it right now.
The agreement has to be across the table that (1.) schedule is king and as such (2.) we will execute accordingly. I’m going to come back to you and say, “Okay, here are the risks we’re going to need to take in a tightened schedule.”
In traditional procurements, when you do things in series, a lot of the risk is mitigated because you test and then you get the answer and then you go back and make changes. But if you’re running a test and a revision at the same time, you’re betting that the test is going to be successful and that any revision you make, you’re going to get to add on and keep going. There is a risk that the test fails and now you’ve potentially extended the schedule or you accept the failure and move on.
So in looking at how to marshal resources, we recognize schedule is king, then look across the room at the operational side and the money holders, and the acquisition team. Then we’re going to crash the schedule which is going to drive potential cost/schedule/performance risk.
How do you develop your acquisition team and your over-arching team?
There’s your sphere of influence and your span of control. The program manager has to have authorities, so if I say I need someone or I need Advisory and Assistance Services (A&AS) support, then I need to have that support from my leadership. For operational, I would say it’s sphere of influence and I’d say to those who are already involved, here’s who I think needs to be added to the team. If it’s an air operation, for example, then I’d probably need some operators. If this is a Special Forces operation, then I’m going to need some SOF folks. And, I’m going to need ones with experience. Bless their heart, I was one once, but you can’t bring in a second lieutenant to give technical advice or operational advice for an urgent operational need. It’s got to be somebody with the right skills and the right authorities themselves, the right insight, and availability. That’s the operational piece, which is something I can influence.
For the actual execution team, when you look at the program team, I’m going to reach first for my comfort level because it’s all about the culture. I will go back to my norm: what are my known highest confidence team members that I know will get the job done? When you build a team—and we should be building teams all the time and we should be expanding these experiences—but when you’re crashing the schedule, you can’t afford to include icebreakers or negotiations that you would do traditionally. So to crash the schedule, you go with the team that you already know.
When I pick up the phone to my Contracting Officer or someone I need on the team, I don’t have to say, “Hey, how’s it going?” and other niceties. When the balloon goes up, I can say, “Hey, I’ve got a UON and I need you!” If I don’t have that kind of team in place and I have somebody new and I call for help like that, it could put them on their heels.
“What a mean program manager! She doesn’t say hi and ask about the family! She doesn’t care!”
That’s not true: we’re at war right now. We will drink after this, I promise—you name the time and place and we’re there, but right now, the focus is on building the team. Step 1 is to bring the best that I know together—the by-name-requests. The key people I need are:
- The Chief Engineer, one I know has ability to execute with me,
- The Contracting Officer,
- The buyer,
- A key tester,
- Sufficient loggies,
- Legal counsel, and
- A Junior Program Manager.
I might reach out to the Contracting Officer and say, “Hey, I love this buyer (contract specialist) who’s done a great job,” but in reality, I’ll probably leave that up to the Contracting Officer to determine who else needs to come on board.
I’ll hand-pick a key tester because we know that when we are crashing the schedule and running things in parallel, most of the risk is technical so I need to make sure my architect, my tester, are in sync.
Junior Program Managers are okay on the team as long as you have the expertise of the Chief Engineer, Contracting Officer, and the Program Manager. You can accept risk in less experienced people in the loggies, in legal, in junior PMs.
I would hand-pick my legal counsel because some legal counsels tend to get involved with the PM decisions beyond their purview—it’s the sexy part! That hard part in the culture is, everyone just stay in your lane and focus on the sufficiency needed. It’s not going to be perfect. Schedule is king. Just get to “good enough.” Like the term used in Afghanistan, you do something “Afghan-good.” It’s a different mindset when you’re deployed there. Smaller country, smaller force. What’s sufficient? What’s “JUON-good”? Having the wrong legal counselor who doesn’t see sufficiency as their job can slow down the team if they instead want to re-write the requirements or do anything beyond what’s required to make sure the contract actions are “legally sufficient.”
The reality is, if a protest is going to happen, it’s probably outside our control. We’ll minimize that likelihood as much as possible. The unknown unknowns are going to hit us. The sooner they hit, the sooner we attack.
Lesson learned! I’ve had the experience where I had an amazing loggie who was the only one on the team. He was so in the weeds and was at the warehouse that we couldn’t strategize the fielding and sustainment activities. Even though it’s a UON, I contend that you still need minimum viable sustainment. In other words, whatever you field better come with some minimum viable support for the warfighter. If you just drop a box and leave and there’s no return address or no phone number or no help desk or no IKEA instructions, the warfighter isn’t going to trust it. They’re going to put it in the corner until somebody demonstrates more confidence for them. That’s why you really need a loggie on the team. This is new when considering your team and needs to be emphasized.
What do you look at regarding funding?
Sufficiency. I hate colors of money! That has slowed me down traditionally more than anything else because usually what I’ve seen with the urgent needs is grab a little here, here, here. I may not be making the most effective decisions for fielding quickly when I have these pots of money, and especially if you’re in the Joint world and you know you’ve got money for PACAF versus money for USAFE, and you buy for these different customers and suddenly something pops up for CONUS. It’s a waste of time to say, “Shoot, the balloon went up first here and we misread it because of external indicators and we’ve got to send it here.” We’re going to do it and then clean up the administrivia. What I mean by “clean up the administrivia” is that my FMer (Financial Manager) is now cleaning up rather than helping execute contracting actions or paying purchase orders. Every time we take our eye off the ball to clean up, rework, or pivot, we are burning daylight! The nuance is, when you look at an urgent operational need, you’ve got two years as opposed to a ten-year program, so a one day slip on a UON is a different percentage of the fielding timeline than for a more traditional program. I’ve seen that where the contractor was unable to deliver and now it’s a one-month schedule slip. That’s 1/24th of the schedule!
This is another reason it’s important to have the right culture and the right decision makers who are experienced with UONs because they know about burning daylight whereas somebody else might say, “Oh, I’ll get to it next week and it goes into their pile of work to be done.” Unless you’re standing over their desk, making sure that they move it in front of them…. That’s where the Program Manager spends a lot of time: keeping an eye on all of the moving parts and making sure that they’re meeting all their gates.
That’s also why you need to have trust and confidence in the rest of the team. If the eyes of the PM are focused there, I have to have that trust and confidence that my chief engineer is moving on with the architecture that the contract is moving forward, helping with the Justification and Approval document.
You’ve given a good description of how you address an urgent need when you are first forming your team. Now let’s skip ahead. A letter contract has been awarded, the Contractor is working, you’re expecting delivery in a few weeks. What’s happening in your head now?
So the secret is…um, I’m going to bet that the Contractor has already been working before the contract was awarded—-shhhhhh! Okay, we all know that that does happen sometimes and we look the other way, even though we’re not supposed to. You do things in war time situations that you wouldn’t normally. There’s an acceptance of risk there. We know there’s a risk there, but…you go. Again, you have to have mature contractors and a good relationship with those Contractors so you say, “You know, we’re in this together.”
So let’s assume the Contractor has been officially issued a letter contract and your Contracting team is actively working its definitization and everything is legal. No hiccups. When do you as a Program Manager start to shift your focus and how do you shift?
The shift, to me, is more about re-directing my attention. The letter contract is awarded. I’ve got a Contracting Officer. I’ve got some great junior PMs that I’ve been working with along the way and they’re going to go over there while I turn my attention, probably, to the operational aspect because I will continually be hit as the PM. Nothing is ever good enough. I’m fighting “requirements creep.” I’m fighting people stealing my money. I’m fighting people telling me I don’t have the right color of money, that I’m doing something illegal. So I’m now outward-focused rather than inward-focused.
Throughout this timeline, I’ll have my “number 1” of “number 1’s,” and I’ll have a distro list. All my stakeholders—regardless of rank, they’re getting it and if they don’t want it, they can throw it in the trash—but the distro is a weekly that will come out on Sunday nights that says “The Number 1 of Number 1’s.”
Where does your “Number 1 of Number 1’s” come from and why is that important?
Both external and internal team members will come up to me and tell me what’s important, what’s the number 1 thing:
“We need to get this RFP out!”
“No, this is the most important thing—we need—”
“No, PACAF says—”
“No, the Navy says—”
I originally started with my Numbers 1s and said, “Don’t worry: if you’re in here, even if you’re #10, it doesn’t mean I’m not working on your concern. It just means what’s on top that week.” And it changes every week. This is a social norm I have to get out there to the internal and external teams. What I’ve learned is to list the #2’s of the #1’s! So my email became the #1 of the #1s, then the #2s.
Who does your distro list go to? Everybody who’s working the urgent need?
Yes. I have my Contractors on there, too. Not all—just strategically selected Contractors. I have my operators, my acquisition team. I don’t have my whole team, just the lead PM, the lead liaison.
Why do you include your Contractors, even strategically selected?
Because if you’re telling everybody you’re all in this together, and you don’t include the Contractor, then you’ve created a barrier. Yeah, and in reality, someone’s going to forward your email to them anyway. When you have a big distro list, it’s going to get out, and that’s fine because everyone needs to understand.
So my shift to focus on the outward starts with my #1 of #1s distro list and running pass interference. I let up on my internal team and allow them to execute once I’ve gotten my acquisition strategy approved and running. Now I exist to run pass interference from the external and also when the internal team members identify barriers at their level, I’m on the phone right away. I keep an open-door policy: “Come in and have a seat! My priorities are your priorities!”
Regarding the external, I’m now the outward interface. I also make it clear to them that they don’t get to call and try and influence priorities with my team. The only one who is going to shift those is me. That sounds hardline, but the reason it works is because everyone understands why they’re the #1. If they don’t like it, they can call my boss, but typically, there are rationales behind the priorities. They may try to go behind my back, but that doesn’t change the reason for the rationale. Have I been fired a few times and returned to my job within an hour? Sure!
Let’s fast forward through the timeline. The Contractor has now delivered. How does your focus change now?
Initial delivery? Prototype? They’ve delivered and we’re testing or we’re fielding. Let’s say they’ve delivered the prototype and we’re now conducting testing. All hands on.
We have to set up the expectations for the tests because traditionalists will say, “AFOTEC gets to write the report and nobody gets to touch it while they’re doing an assessment.” No. In this case, it’s, “We’ve put something together, here’s how it looks, we’re going.” It’s not a pass-fail but a “here’s what capabilities and limitations you’re going to get when it fields.” If you don’t set up that expectation ahead of time, especially for your operators and your money folks, it’s a mess to clean up. So it’s, “We’re going to test and here’s what we’re going to do with the test results. Is it good enough?” If you hit your gates fast enough, congratulations. If you’re like the rest of us who did the best you could and some of the intended requirements weren’t hit, okay. Will the warfighter use it?
We have to have transparency in the testing activities and effective messaging.
Let’s say we’ve gotten through our testing and we’ve been given a green light to deploy, so now attention shifts to the fielding plan. It’s one thing if you’ve got some weapons you’re sending but another if you’ve got an architecture. If you’re doing installs, putting things on poles or buildings and it’s a key activity, that’s why you need a loggie involved early on to keep an eye on this fielding plan. If you’re dealing with external fielding versus internal, you can do things inside a building no matter the temperature outside, but if you’re in North Dakota in the winter and think you’re going to install something outside where the ground freezes, you need to understand your environmental impacts. If you think you’re going to go to a base that has nukes and you’re going to start putting things wherever you want, nope. You need to engage base by base with installation leadership and have a one-on-one with their key install folks around the table. This is going on throughout your timeline. You’ll tell installation leadership your rollout plan, where you need their help—permits, expedited access, civil engineering, communications, etc. You really need to have the installation team running in parallel with you or that will slow things down.
Example: traditionally, it might take 30 days to get a permit approved. How do we turn that into 7 days? How do we turn it into 1 day? It’s not “Can we?” but “What is it going to take? What waivers?” Don’t be afraid of becoming best buddies with O-6s and O-7s…or with junior people as well.
Before we move on, can you talk to preponderance of contractor support on the battlefield and their use in training and sustainment? Challenge of rotations and retraining and planning for home station training?
There is an old Air Force assignments team adage, “Right person, at the right place, at the right time” that can be employed in the urgent environment. Once all the Government authorities and approval hurdles have been cleared and the field units have been prepped for the imminent system fielding activity, these teams want to engage with the subject matter experts for the installation and training activities—regardless of rank/affiliation (i.e., contractor vs Government). Yes, they will have the contact information for the Government project lead—but beyond that, they want to hear directly from the individuals conducting training and/or considering trenching, installing towers, etc. In fact, given the limited numbers of Government individuals who can be quickly pivoted to a new UON activity, typically there will be a large percentage of contracted support across all the functionals to enable rapid program execution.
When fielding capability to a deployed site, there is an additional challenge of maintaining a trained force able to leverage the new capability. In a perfect world, training would be accomplished in garrison, and teams would arrive to the AOR [Area of Responsibility] with the knowledge for systems employment. However, the reality is that urgent fieldings can get out in front of that pre-deployment schedule. So we look for opportunities to conduct training both in CONUS and down range to maximize the breadth of training opportunities for immediate and next rotation. If country agreements or operational hazards prevent training on-site, we look for locations in the region that could host the training. This training requirement does add cost but enables removing some of the predeployment training from the critical path (i.e., run in parallel to installation and fielding activities rather than waiting to deliver training to predeployed teams).
Fast-forward on your timeline. Everything’s been delivered. Everything’s working fine. Now what? Is it time to celebrate?
Yes! Actually, there are little “pop the champagnes” along the way. We got through testing—pop the champagne! You set those because the team is running hard and fast and they do need some relief. Family situations happen, life happens. So you do need those little breaks and to keep an eye on each other. And you need back-ups because you can’t have a single point of failure.
Assess your single points of failure in key activities or key places. The Program Manager should never be a single point of failure. I should be able to be moved on and the team still run. Contracting Officer? That’s a challenge. As well as the Chief Engineer. Testing. Just making sure of what if they disappear for a little while, get tapped for deployment, etc. Contractor single points of failure are important, too.
Once everything is fielded and in service for a while, then you need to start thinking about disposition and transition. Your UON came with no tail except the minimum viable sustainment. Do you want to keep it in service? If so, how to you transition? Do you want to go the Middle Tier of Acquisition route?
When you get to the end, do you do any type of lessons learned then?
I’d like to say yes, but personally I never get to hang around that long. One of the challenges of being successful is that you get moved off to work the next urgent need, which why it’s important not to be a single point of failure. But that’s okay because you build your reputation and that’s how the UON culture expands.
However, yes, there should be a lessons learned repository. One example is DAU’s JUON Powerful Example.
Any issues with funding you’d like to address? Examples you’ve seen of funding delays? Problems with getting Undefinitized Contract Actions (UCA) definitized because of funding issues?
With a two-year UON, between the acquisition strategy approvals and funding release, I’d say we only had 70 to 80% of the schedule to execute, depending on the specific CCMD/MAJCOM. Then, since there were several colors of money in a single project, we had to navigate pots we could spend in the fiscal years.
How long before funding was released depended on the UON and the color of money. Some funds were available immediately, such as limited Rapid Acquisition Authority (RAA) dollars, and some were provided in across FY allocations, such as RDT&E funds and Other funds.
Any more tips?
Yes. You need pre-approved overtime for civilian employees. They’re going to be working late hours with you, shoulder to shoulder. It’s accepted that schedule is king and there’s going to be a cost. You may also reward the team in other ways, even personal funds, such as buying the team pizza for working meals or anything that makes life for the team easier without getting you into trouble legally.
During the early part of the process, when first talking to the Contractor(s), it’s important for them to hear you so it’s clear to them your expectations. I tell them, “I don’t want to hear a ‘no, we can’t do this.’ I want to hear ‘yes, we can do this but here’s what it will take.’” By not accepting no for an answer, I force the Contractors to think outside the box.
One more important area is having your FMer know the rules with the money because people rely on their own experiences at that location and how they’ve always done it rather than being more innovative. Having an FMer understand what’s illegal and what can be waived is important. RAA dollars are wonderful because they can be waived and used as necessary. I hated trying to figure out color of money while running fast and having to structure the contract in a way that’s a much harder negotiation.
Performance is not usually go or no-go. It’s this is the capability that you’re getting and its limitations. Here’s a great analogy: where you have 0% capability, the difference between 0% and 1% is a lot more than the difference between 70% and 71%. In other words, when you have 0%, you have nothing. But if you have something—anything—and it has a miniscule chance of success, at least I have something.
All in all, the camaraderie, the thrill of successes, and the compressed timeline makes working UONs a rare and worthwhile opportunity to see an acquisition go virtually start to finish and you can take great pride in your contribution to preventing loss of life or critical mission failure.
Virtual Mentor #2 - Supervisory Contracting Officer Interview
You are at your desk late on a Friday afternoon when your Program Manager bursts into your office and says, “Come quick! We’ve got a situation! Looks like we’ve got an Urgent Operational Need (UON) coming.” As the senior Contracting employee in your Program Office, what’s the first thing that goes through your mind?
Before I am on my feet and running out of my office, I’m already asking my Program Manager my two most important questions:
- Do you have a validated UON? and
- Do you have money?
Regardless of his answers, they won’t slow me down. They just put everything into context for me.
It is not uncommon to have a Program Manager run into my office frantically on a Friday afternoon with something that has to be turned “urgently.” What I want to know to determine (1) how serious this is and (2) where to put my very limited manpower resources is does he have a valid requirement and does he have funding? If this is a Joint Staff validated UON, Joint Urgent Operational Need (JUON), or Joint Emergent Operational Need (JEON), the requirement is taken to a new level of seriousness, and I know exactly what resources to throw at the problem.
Your Program Manager tells you that he doesn’t know if it is a validated UON or not and has no idea about the funding yet. All he knows at this point is that the Program Executive Officer (PEO) has summoned the two of you to her office to discuss an urgent situation.
As the two of you walk together quickly to the PEO’s briefing room, what goes through your mind? What do you talk about?
Honestly, I’m probably going to be a little bit agitated because nine times out of ten when this happens, my Program Manager has already asked me the one burning question on his mind before we’ve even cleared my office: How soon can you get us on contract? It’s funny how often Program Managers ask me that, with me having no idea yet what we are buying or how much it will cost.
Your Program Manager tells you that he doesn’t know the answers to any of your questions yet and that you will both find out in the classified briefing that you are going to. Once you walk into the briefing room with your Prog–
Whoa. Back up. There is a lot going on between the time I leave my office and the time I enter that briefing room.
Right now, all I know is that it is late in the afternoon and my team has already started to go home, we may have an urgent need, we have no idea of the funding, and even if the potential contract itself isn’t classified, then writing or negotiating the contract may require a security clearance higher than secret. Because so many of these meetings may be classified and I can’t have my phone in the room, I’ve probably grabbed some low-tech notebook with a pen to take with me. I may not be able to take notes at all or at least not take them out of the room.
Because I almost always have my phone with me, except in a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF), I either call or text one of my Contracting Officers who has a Top Secret clearance and whom I have prepared for this moment, and I ask her to hang around until I can get back for a conversation.
You say you have been preparing your Contracting Officer for this moment. What does that mean?
I don’t think this is necessarily true for Program Managers or any other functionals, but for me as the Chief of Contracts for my Program office, a solid 90% of my battle is won by planning ahead, long before the Program Manager shows up with an urgent need.
How can you plan ahead for something so nebulous and unexpected? You don’t even know yet what the requirement is.
I don’t have to know. Not yet. I just have to anticipate.
I already know at this point that I have at least one or two Contracting Officers trained on how to write an Undefinitized Contract Action (UCA), or letter contracts, at least to issue if not to definitize it. I also have at least two or three contract specialists, or buyers, who are either already experienced with issuances and definitizations or they are fast learners. Normally, when a validated UON hits my desk, I will assign one of my Contracting Officers to it along with an enthusiastic but less experienced buyer who needs to learn how to issue a UCA. Then when it comes time to definitize it, I may switch buyers to give someone else an opportunity. I may even switch Contracting Officers. Regardless, they will work together and learn together so that I have more people trained for the next time. This is part of my normal effort to develop the best Contracting workforce I can.
By the time I reach the briefing room, I already know which member of my team I will most likely assign a buying action to, including which buyer. That comes from knowing, at least at a cursory level, the workload of all my team members. If the right person with the right clearance is already too busy, I may shift their workload to someone else to put them on this. Sometimes the clearance level drives which team member gets the project. However, it may be that the classified component is something that a buyer doesn’t need to know to do their job or even a Contracting Officer, as long as I know it and I’m willing to sign off on anything classified or at least be responsible for it as the chief of my office.
So, you arrive at the briefing room. What happens next?
Probably the same question, higher level person asking: “How soon can you get us on contract?”
Sometimes it is just a handful of us and other times it is a conference room full of people I work with daily and others I’ve never met. The attendance is often driven by the level of classification—only those who have a need-to-know are there—or who is doing the briefing. A general officer can fill a conference room a lot faster than a GS-14.
As the briefing is going on, I’m listening—from the Contracting Officer point of view—for the things that are important to me.
I want to know if the need has been validated. Even if we don’t have a validated UON in hand, we may have a heads up that it is coming so we can go ahead and be working on it.
I also want to know how much money we are talking about and what kind (appropriation). I often do not have the answer to this one yet.
Usually at this meeting, we are just trying to figure out if there is a technical solution to the problem that can be fielded in two years and then how to get to it. If there is a particular contractor who already has a history with the problem or the solution, then that might be the firm that we put on contract. I’d want to know who that is because we might already have a contracting vehicle that we can use very quickly, such as an IDIQ.
I may have an existing contract and this solution would be in scope of that.
I may know of a classified contract that few other people in the room are aware of that we could use.
The initial focus of these meetings is usually on potential technical solutions and from there we talk about how much we think it would cost and potential contracting solutions.
What are your concerns related to funding?
If we have funding.
If we are going to have enough.
If it is expiring funds.
If it is the right color of money.
When will we get it.
If I’m going to have to put a “stop work” on one of my other contracts so we can take money off of it to put on this one.
Will we take funding out of hide?
I’m not as concerned with tracking down funding as my Program Manager is, but I am very concerned with the specifics of the funding we receive. I may be offered multiple pots of money, which can be a nightmare, if it is the wrong color.
I have to be very cautious that all or some of the money might be expiring funds. For example, I may be promised that day—or a few days or weeks later whenever funding arrives—that I will have two funding lines and that one of them, say, about 50% of the anticipated total, expires at the end of September, current year. In that case, under a UCA, I will plan to obligate the expiring funds first and hold the additional funds to be put on with a “qualifying proposal,” which is a follow-up proposal with more detail than I get when I ask for a Not-to-Exceed proposal. I’ll put the last of the non-expiring funds on contract when I definitize it.
If the funding appropriation does not match the purpose of the work—wrong color of money—then the Program Manager would have to get the funding reprogrammed so that it is the right color of money. Reprograming is not as easy as it might sound, and sometimes it takes months before we have the right kind of funds—even at the point where we on the Government side have already done all of the prep work and we are waiting for the funding to arrive. I’ve had to wait a few days shy of six months to get funding I can actually use, four months after the UON was validated with the wrong kind of funding and the clock started ticking against the Program Manager and me to get it on contract and get something delivered. Probably no one but the Contracting Officer, unless it’s a Financial Manager (FM), will have a strong appreciation for having the right color of money and non-expiring funds. The absolute last thing you want as a Contracting Officer is for funding to come in so late that it is impossible to get it obligated. If it expires, all the heroics of the Program Manager are for nothing because you as the Contracting Officer just lost those funds. I cannot stress enough how important it is, if you are using a UCA or letter contract, to pay attention to expiring funds.
What happens if you can’t get your UCA definitized within six months?
Then I get nasty grams from my boss because he is getting nasty grams from the General wanting to know why I am missing that deadline.
I usually start getting queries around four to five months after I’ve issued the UCA—that is, if it is taking more time than it usually takes me to definitize. And yes, I have gotten queries wanting to know why the UCA is not already definitized when I do not yet have the funding in hand.
Sometimes if a contractor wants to play hardball, they will try to hold out until day 180 to get every penny of the funding that we have estimated and set aside for the work. They know I will have to answer to someone else about why I broke the 180-day decree, but that tactic never works with me.
If it looks like we are not going to meet the deadline, I will start at least a month ahead of time prepping my boss and the PEO, who is usually for me a General Officer. I may have to talk to my own boss several times a week just to make sure that he and the Contracting front office group are supportive of my plan. It would be unfortunate to be pressured by managers between the General and me to make an arbitrary deadline and sign up to a price I don’t think is fair and reasonable or can’t otherwise justify.
Most of the time though, I don’t really have a problem with this, and I have always found General Officers to be rather understanding when I tell them my plan, what the holdup is, and that I don’t think it is smart of us to give away the farm just to meet an arbitrary 180 days. By keeping my boss, my Program Manager, and my Program Manager’s boss in the loop, we can sometimes put pressure on the contractor to go ahead and wrap it up, especially when we all know that the qualifying proposal came in at a number less than the not-to-exceed and that I will never agree to more—unless in the very unusual circumstance that we have added work to the original not-to-exceed (NTE) amount, in which case I would have an additional or amended NTE based on the additional work, but that is rare.
Why would a contractor be late in definitizing the contract?
Usually it is to get as much money as possible, especially if they’ve overestimated the funds to complete the contract, the funds to definitize the contract. When we ask them for an NTE, we are serious that it is a not-to-exceed, emphasis on not. That means they have to pad their estimate a little, unless they already have a lot more information to price out their NTE than I would expect them to at that point, especially if they have to develop the thing we’re buying. They are going to pad, most likely, to reduce the risk of overrunning an NTE. I’ve rarely had a qualifying proposal at the time of UCA issuance unless perhaps I had an existing proposal for ongoing or upcoming work that we could leverage.
If the contractor is trying to hold out for more money than I can justify, I usually take the approach of reducing their profit.
Why would you reduce their profit when they are turning the solution around so quickly for you?
I always start with a profit percentage I can justify. Personally, I am willing to boost that above the norm because they are turning it so quickly for me. It may also be cutting edge tech.
In my own experience, delays in definitization hardly ever reflect delays caused by the technical team. If the contractor’s contracting team is turning a qualified proposal very quickly and they are super responsive, I can afford to be generous with the upper most profit I can justify because I can pull Government resources off of a definitization and put them on something else. A lot of managers don’t think in terms of Government resources or think that Government resources are “free” just because personnel are paid every day regardless. However, the faster I can wrap up one project and get on to the next, the better—because then I don’t have to beg for more manpower to get the job done, and I can afford to run a lean and mean team.
So, if I am negotiating a definitization at month four and getting nowhere, that is when I write a letter to the contractor’s contracting team and tell them my plan. While they are delaying or slow rolling a negotiation, work is still being done on the technical side. The more work that is done, the more actuals we have on the cost to do that work. As the work on the UCA becomes less nebulous because more and more work is complete, the risk goes down and profit is tied directly to risk. Six months into the work, what might have started as a justifiable 13 to 15% profit is now much less risky and may now be justifiable at an 8 or 9% rate.
I explain this to them in a Contracting Officer’s letter to the contractor, and I tell them that as of the following dates, each date being one week or two weeks apart, the maximum profit I can justify is X. Each date I give them, the profit drops by a quarter or by half a percent. Keep in mind that while I am reducing profit, their technical team is continuing to work, continuing to incur costs that are auditable, and those numbers are firming up.
This is exactly the reason why some contractors don’t want to accept a UCA. They feel that they end up with far less profit, but with me, it is only because they are intentionally dragging out the proposal or the negotiations.
The Program Manager and the rest of my team are not typically thinking about the pain of definitizing a UCA. They are happy simply that the contractor is working toward a solution. The pressure to get on contract is off of them.
But my buying team definitely feels the pressure. This is one of the reasons that the senior Contracting person who approves the issuance of a UCA may be reluctant. Many people don’t realize this, but the UCA is approved within the Contracting channels—at least everywhere I have worked. Even though a UCA may be the fastest way to get a contractor working, the Contracting and Program Management leaders may not agree, and even if they do, the contractor may not accept a UCA for a brand new contract. If they have an existing contract, I might be able to accomplish what I need with a change order.
You talk a lot about using UCAs or letter contracts. Aren’t there any other contracting strategies if, for whatever reason, you can’t use those?
Absolutely. And if I have a better way, I will use it because a UCA may end up being twice the work of a normal negotiation, and it does have a tendency to drag on long after the pressure is off the Program Office to give me the documentation I need.
This is exactly why I put in the work well ahead of a UON, JUON, or JEON landing on my desk…or in a safe down the hall. I try to have a variety of contract vehicles that I can use to react to an urgent need quickly. When I write new contracts or do strategic sourcing contracts, I always think ahead to What if I get a UON? It’s part of my overarching plan for whatever contracting division I run.
I may be able to leverage an existing broad agency announcement, for example, to get a quick white paper from several potential contractors if we think an award could be competitive. Then we review the white papers overnight and call in a tentative selectee to give a pitch or an oral proposal within a couple of days, with a written cost proposal to follow shortly thereafter.
I may already have a single award Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity contract with our best candidate, with negotiated unit prices, so that I am able to prep a delivery order, have the contractor review it within 24 hours, and be able to award within an hour of receiving funds, all because I have done some upfront contingency planning and have written flexible contracts that allow my team to respond just as fast as or sometimes faster than a UCA.
It is all about thinking ahead of time and having the right structures already in place when the emergencies come. That means that when I get the call to rush to the PEO’s briefing room, I am not overcome by a sense of dread. Instead, I am excited because I know I have already done all the pre-work and my contracting team has everything we need to do the job as long as the Program Manager can give me a requirement and the right kind of funds.
Are there any other contracting strategies up your sleeve when it comes to dealing with UONs and other urgent requirements?
One strategy I haven’t had the opportunity to use yet but have it “up my sleeve” is to use an Other Transaction agreement, especially if I’m dealing with a small business or an industry partner who doesn’t usually work with the DoD.
Occasionally, we can pull widgets we need off an existing production line, so that all we have to do is a contract action to replace them, and we have much more time to do that.
Another strategy I use a lot is to break up the requirement, provided I can convince my Program Manager and his chain of command. It can mean some extra work but for good reason. In many of those initial briefings, we don’t have an answer and neither does industry. We know maybe what needs to happen in the first three months, but we don’t know enough for a contractor to price out whatever happens beyond that. We can award a small UCA for the first phase and get the contractor working while we figure out the next phase. The qualifying proposal is delivered when the proposal for Phase II is delivered and that extra work wraps together into a neat package to definitize Phase I and award Phase II close together. Plus, we write a class Justification and Approval (J&A – For Other Than Full And Open Competition) to cover both phases so we do that only once.
Or we know the bare minimum of widgets needed to solve the immediate problem and issue a UCA for those with a follow-on that’s better defined. We can take the lessons learned from the first round of widgets to upgrade the next round.
In both cases, it’s dire to get the contractor working on the solution while we figure out the business side of the acquisition.
Any other tips you’d like to pass along for Contracting Officers and buyers?
Yes. It’s probable that you’ll be using a sole source document or J&A. While “only one source” is an authority you may have time to use and go through the synopsis process, depending on how long it takes for the UON to be validated or for funding to arrive, it’s more likely that you’ll use the authority for “unusual and compelling urgency.” With a validated UON, that’s usually easy to justify. What you want to watch out for is local procedures that might be tighter than DoDI 5000.81. For example, I have been required for years to make sure that with a J&A for “unusual and compelling urgency,” we don’t go over 12 months. The thought process is that anything truly urgent should be delivered in less than a year or I need higher-level approval. If the Program Manager and contractor swear to me they’ll deliver a day less than 12 months, I don’t believe them. Stuff happens. I have to be really firm in that period of performance or go ahead and submit an approval package before I issue the UCA. Otherwise, I’ll be submitting it when we bust 12 months and that two-star approval authority is not going to be happy.
Program Offices can get hung up on the 180-day rule, which the DFARS says is actually 180 days from a qualifying proposal, not from issuance, but the one they often miss is that you can’t let the Contractor’s work get beyond a certain percentage before you definitize. The Contracting Officer has more wiggle room with the 180-day rule than with the percentage rule.
Another thing to be aware of is that you can only obligate 50% of the NTE without a qualifying proposal and 75% with one, but that means if you have expiring funds and can’t obligate 100% by year end, you’ve lost 25% of the funding with no possible replacement coming, and that’s not a conversation you want to have. Don’t be afraid to ask for a waiver from your HCA (Head of Contracting Agency) in accordance with DFARS 217.7404-5 if you don’t think you’ll make it, but give yourself enough time to get the waiver approved. Not everything will fit and these aren’t handed out like candy. The key is to think ahead and if your world falls apart, you’ve got that waiver in your back pocket. This isn’t a matter of rewarding a contractor who’s late to negotiate—it can just as easily be that funding arrives too late in the fiscal year.
One last consideration: if you are working a new iteration of an urgent need that your Program Office worked a year or two ago, seek out the Contracting Officer or anyone else who worked the previous UON to find out how your counterparts responded. You may be working with different contractor personnel or you may learn about which negotiation tactics that worked or didn’t last time and you can be better prepared.
Schedule is critical when working UONs, more important than performance and cost. Ensure that everybody on the team, financial managers, contracting, and other support organizations like Defense Contract Audit Agency, Defense Contract Management Agency, Component General Counsel, and prime and subcontractors involved with aspects of the acquisition effort are all fully aware of the urgency of the need. This will ensure expedited action. Doing so can save lives and prevent critical mission failure for our Warfighters.
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