Working as a contractor for the U.S. government (USG) overseas is always challenging, particularly when that work is carried out in non-permissive or hostile operating environments. These challenges are amplified when the contractor is a small business, as smaller firms often lack the human and institutional resources needed to cope with the unique demands such environments impose.
DevTech Systems, Inc. has had substantial successful experience working overseas for the USG, often in difficult circumstances. We are, for example, currently implementing USAID Mission-wide contracts in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Nigeria; have recently participated in the Department of State’s Evaluation IQC in Afghanistan, Iraq, and East Africa; and are advising the Government of Puerto Rico, where DevTech is the economic forecasting and analysis provider for debt restructuring. We have also worked on Public Financial Management issues with the World Bank, IMF, and IDB in such countries as Jordan, Pakistan, and Tanzania. Even in highly non-permissive environments, we have been able to provide our clients with a full suite of monitoring and evaluation, data collection, and data visualization services, consistently offering our clients DevTech’s world-class technical expertise.
In this work, we have found that the U.S. government approach to working with contractors overseas can vary widely from country to country and from agency to agency. In our experience, however, there are several best practices that certain U.S. Embassies and missions have adopted that make it much easier for all businesses, particularly small ones, to work effectively overseas; these best practices thereby help the U.S. achieve its foreign policy objectives.
Flexibility is Key
The first thing to remember is that Flexibility is Key. We work in dynamic environments; circumstances change, as does our understanding of those circumstances. The instruments through which we work therefore must be equally dynamic. When operating environments change dramatically, the U.S. Government and the contractor community need to be as flexible as possible in adjusting scopes of work, workplans – and, most importantly, adjusting expectations – to reflect those changes.
The current situation in Nicaragua offers a useful example of this sort of welcome flexibility; in the face of mounting civil unrest throughout the country, the USAID Mission there has prioritized the safety of its partner staff and has allowed its contractors and grantees to adjust their workplans and limit themselves to low-profile, indoor activities for the duration of the current emergency. Longer-term, the mission is adjusting its portfolio to attach greater emphasis to programs that support the expression of democratic values and the freedom of speech – another example of how the USG can adjust its assistance programs quickly to respond to changing needs.
Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
Second, to borrow a favorite phrase from the military, Embassies and missions do best when they keep in mind that “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance”. For example, when USG offices overseas are expecting the arrival of a short-term technical assistance team, be it to conduct an evaluation, design a project, or provide technical assistance to the post itself or to the host country, it is very useful for those offices to have on hand, in advance of the team’s arrival, a checklist of foreseeable items and at least the basic documents (e.g., annual reports, quarterly reports, planning materials, PMPs, PADs, budgets, etc.) that the team will need to hit the ground running. Such preparation helps avoid wasted time, and thereby both saves the U.S. taxpayer money and makes it more likely that the USG will get the results it is expecting (and for which it is paying) from those contractors.
Change Isn’t Always Good
Third, it is useful for the government to recall that “Change isn’t Always Good”. All contractors, of course, be they small or large, would always prefer to work with a stable USG staff on the other side of the table. Having one Contracting Officer and one Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR) over the life of any award is always the ideal situation. Today, however, particularly in non-permissive environments such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, and South Sudan, that simply isn’t a realistic expectation. In those posts, the norm is for USG officers to serve one-year assignments – which in turn means that over the life of a five-year award, a contractor might work with four or five different Contracting Officers and CORs. In these situations, missions that emphasize careful handover planning (and, where possible, overlap) tend to minimize disruptions caused by staff turnover. DevTech has found it useful, for example, when posts require a mandatory turn over meeting – even if it’s virtual or pre-recorded – to walk staff inheriting old portfolios through the underlying rationale for and requirements of those portfolios. This helps prevent “orphaned” contracts and allows new CORS to get up to speed quickly about why contractors are doing what they are doing.
Focus on Ends, not Means
Finally, DevTech has found that our USG partners are most successful when they Focus on Ends, not Means. For example, RFPs that focus on desired results rather than on prescribing the exact technical interventions needed to achieve those results are more likely to benefit most from the accumulated expertise of the industry – which is, after all, what the USG is paying for. Similarly, missions that broadly define the technical expertise required give themselves a broader pool of talent from which to select. In our experience, Government does best when it allows more staffing flexibility to contractors. If, toward the end of the procurement process, the Government decides that the staffing proposed is inadequate or inappropriate, it can correct this at the BAFO stage. This is a mechanism which we believe the USG should use more often.
There are of course many other things that the USG does to help small businesses working with it overseas. The above examples represent only a sample of our experience. But DevTech believes these and other best practices deserve careful study and wide replication. The contracting community, through organizations such as the Professional Services Council, should advocate for this outcome.