Avoid surprises in government purchase process

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jonathan Wright
  • 81st Contracting Squadron
Remember the "Chance" cards in the Monopoly game? Some of them really catch you by surprise, like making you pay for items out of your own pocket when you least expect it and for requirements that you didn't expect. For example, "You are assessed for street repairs--$40 per house, $115 per hotel.

"Instead of leaving unexpected surprise to chance, the "ounce of prevention" adage is worth more than an ounce of gold (or at least a stack of $500 bills.) Because my contracting career involves taxpayer funds, I've unfortunately seen noncontracting personnel get the dreaded "Chance" card for some sort of mistake in the conduct of their official duties.

At Base X, I've seen a Government Purchase Card holder make a $300 personal restitution to the U.S. Treasury for purchasing a barbecue grill, which was specifically prohibited in the financial Air Force Instruction for purchase, even though the grill was for the unit. Elsewhere, I've seen members receive disciplinary action, and even removal from position, because they asked a contractor to do something that wasn't already covered by a contract. As a matter of Air Force policy, when this mistake occurs, the ratification process requires the supervisor to address what disciplinary action was taken.

These situations were avoidable. To protect fellow Airmen from personal liability and disciplinary action, we have a system and organization structure that includes contracting officers to represent the government in creating, modifying, or terminating contracts. Only contracting officers have this special authority. In order to achieve contracting officer authority, one must complete a rigorous professional development program. That means a ton of legalese, so that he or she would know the rules, how to secure and protect the best interests of the government and how to obtain the best pricing on our contracts.

Hypothetically, if we didn't have contracting officers, what would happen? Each unit would have personnel with an additional duty to create contracts for their unit. These "additional duty contracting officers" would be required to take nearly two years of schooling and six years of experience o be appointed. The lack of a centralized buying organization would reduce the transparency to the public and make it extremely difficult for contractors, auditors and headquarters staff to verify if the manner in which we expend taxpayer funds is in compliance with federal laws and regulation.

Contractors wouldn't even know who to contact for upcoming bidding opportunities. Similarly, we wouldn't have a central representative to interact with the small business community. We wouldn't have a centralized system for reporting all of the contract actions and obligated dollars to Congress.

Evidently, our system and organization structure is in place for good reason. This is often not communicated, but instead are heard the piercing words, "You have just performed an unauthorized commitment!"

An unauthorized commitment is simply an agreement that someone had made with a contractor without being a contracting officer. As a quick side note, GPC cardholders do receive their "contracting officer authority," but only to the constraint of a very small purchasing limit. So just don't create a contract, modify one or terminate a contract without getting the contracting officer involved. Easy, right?

Unfortunately, 13 instances over the past year revealed a number of trends.

Two unauthorized commitments were caused when the GPC cardholder purchased something that was valued in excess of his or her purchase limit. The purchase limit is derived from the special authority that is delegated in writing to the cardholder. Therefore, if the cardholder has exceeded that limit, then he or she has caused an unauthorized commitment. This isn't a "Go directly to jail" card, but it could lead to disciplinary action.

Three unauthorized commitments were triggered when someone with good intention to solve an emergency did so without the contracting officer's involvement. Again, disciplinary action
could ensue for willful violation of a federal regulation, even though it was an "emergency." To prevent this from happening, contracting officers have even different, special authorities in an emergency situation in order to best represent the Government while simultaneously providing the contracting solution to the emergency at hand.

Four unauthorized commitments occurred when the contractor on a current contract exceeded his or her hours. For example, a contract had 250 hours of funding, the contractor performed 350 hours of service and the quality assurance person didn't put a stop to the etended service. This "change" to the contract, the quality assurance person's implied consent that the additional 100 hours of service are required, was the unauthorized commitment.

Four more unauthorized commitments occurred because a contractor prformed a service and there simply was no contract in place. For instance, a contract was set to expire at the end of the month and the quality assurance personnel directed the contractor to continue to perform the next month without the next contract or an extension in place on the previous contract. Again, in each of these actions, supervisors were asked whether or not disciplinary action was issued.

Most of these issues were due to the lack of awareness. My best recommendation with this matter is that if you need a contractor, ensure that a contracting officer knows what you know. Maybe the contracting officer doesn't know that the hours have been exceeded or that there's an emergency situation and you need a contract in place. In each of these cases, your contracting officer can help you avoid an unauthorized commitment. Even in a deployment setting, contracting officers are high-demand, low-density problemsolvers. Just don't leave the unauthorized commitment -- with possible financial restitution and disciplinary action -- to Chance.