Making the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) fun, conversational and relatable – as well as giving people the tools to use it more effectively – are the primary goals of a new lunch-and-learn program at the Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineering and Support Center, Huntsville.
A complex set of rules governing the federal government's purchasing process, the FAR helps ensure uniformity, consistency, impartiality and fairness in acquisition procedures across all federal executive agencies. It’s thousands of complicated and intimidating pages. And it’s very dry reading, according to Colleen O’Keefe, Huntsville Center’s director of contracting who implemented the weekly lunch-and-learn training.
“It’s almost impossible to just sit and read the FAR – you basically crack it open when you’re having an issue and trying to figure something out,” O’Keefe said, adding that instructors will come from throughout the Center to teach the different parts of the FAR and add their own experiences. “We wanted the training to be more conversational and provide specific situations that impact us here in the center so we can all learn from them.”
While there are 53 parts of the FAR, O’Keefe said the yearlong training will cover a different part each Monday for “52 Weeks of the FAR,” and then start all over again next year. The inaugural session covering Part 1 of the FAR Jan. 5 injected humor wherever possible and slides even included a Dr. Seuss styled FAR rhyme: “You will use it here or there, You will use it everywhere, Yes even if you are in a war zone, Yes even if you are all alone … Yes even if it’s fiscal year-end, Yes even if the PM is your best friend …”
O’Keefe admitted that it’s not easy to do fundamental contracting well; the federal government makes it very difficult. Finding and making the time to sit back, open the FAR and think about the little things that are incredibly important within a contract can be a challenge.
“The OPTEMPO here in Huntsville Center in intense; we have a lot of turnover and we have a lot of people who get promoted rather quickly,” she said. “But we need to ensure we all have a solid foundation in our jobs.
“The potential for miscommunication is huge, because although the terms are defined, they may be defined differently in different parts and, on top of that, industry has different definitions than the federal government.”
In week two training, Jamaya "Rocky" Smith, a contract specialist for Huntsville Center’s Information Technology Services Branch, illustrated how easily words as simple as “day” can cause confusion. He shared the story of a mission critical project for which he was expecting a proposal on a certain day – he was tracking the schedule in calendar days. The contractor, however, thought the schedule was in business days and therefore had three more days to complete the proposal. The term “day” was not specifically defined in the solicitation. While the FAR dictates the default treatment as calendar days when “day” is not specifically defined, Smith emphasized that spelling out any potentially unclear terms just helps avoid confusion and ensure everyone understands the contract requirements.
“This training is also a great way for non-contracting professionals to learn about how complicated the FAR is and understand, ‘Oh, I have to look at four different things in the FAR system plus the USACE acquisition instructions plus the local policy before I even figure out what the definition of a word is,’” O’Keefe said.
“If you don’t have the skill set to know where and how to look something up, the FAR can be daunting and then the tendency becomes to not look it up – and we can’t operate that way. You really have to keep up to ensure you’re doing the right thing for the center, for the customer and for the taxpayer.”