Tuesday, February 28, 2006

My contractor makes me want to cry

Work today is driving me insane. I was going to answer a couple of good "Dear Jamy" questions, but they will have to wait until tomorrow. Today, I will complain about work.

I didn't cry, but I felt tears of frustration pushing against my eyes. If I weren't quite as controlled as I am, some might have seeped out.

[Note: if you can guess where I work, please don't mention it in the comments. I don't want to get into trouble or get anyone else into trouble. Those of you who already know—shhh!]

I should first tell you a little about my job. I work in the research and policy office of a federal agency. My division does program evaluation. That is, we study our agency's programs. We don't measure how effective we are, usually, though that could be done (though not well or accurately). Mostly we document programs using administrative data, surveys, site visits and interviews. It's basic social science research. We have a small staff and we employ contractors to do our national level studies. We write "Statements of Work," which become part of larger "Requests for Quotes/Proposals" that the contractors bid on.

I write statements of work. I review proposals. I select contractors. After the project is underway, I manage it. Everything the contractor writes, I read and respond with comments. They must follow my comments or explain why they disagree. I sign their invoices and make sure they stay within budget. At the end of the project, the contractor submits a final written report. My agency publishes the report and I have to make sure that happens too, though there is a publication division that does the heavy lifting on that end.

I do a bunch of other things, but the core of my job is managing contracts. Right now, I have three active projects, but five is a more reasonable number. I would have five, but we have no no money for contract research because of budget cuts--vicious, unreasonable, painful cuts.

Since there are few firms in this country who do social science research, and even fewer who specialize in my agency's area, we used to do the bulk of our contracting with maybe five firms. Only two of those consistently did good work.

Over the last four years, our job has been made even more difficult by a directive to work with small businesses whenever possible. That cut out our top two firms. It's fine to ask us to widen our net, but now the small businesses have to be the lead contractor on projects where they have no expertise. Smart small firms subcontract with a larger firms in order to come up with good proposals. All of the contracts I'm running are 51% small firm/49% large firm deals. Sometimes the large firm has more than 50% of dollars, but less than 50% of the hours (or is it the other way around? No one is clear on this, even the contracting office), but that is still ok. Um, sure it is. Whatever.

One of my contractors is a "small" firm that has substantive knowledge, but lacks methodological expertise. The project involves a national level survey and a complicated sampling plan, so they hired a methods guy as their "partner." The methods guy is an idiot and one of the worst writers I've yet to encounter in this job. The last set of comments I gave them on their "Data Collection and Analysis Plan" was ten pages long (on a 40 page document; that is not good). The Project Director at the lead firm is one of the worst people I've ever worked with. He does not listen to me. At all. Just the other day, we had this exchange:

Jamy: So, on this cover sheet for the survey, is there a place to record [vital information]? Is it this box called "reference"?

Project Director: It's in the yellow part of the form.

Jamy: My copy of the form doesn't have any yellow on it. Is it "reference"?

PD: It should be in the highlighted part of the form.

Jamy: Right, but my version doesn't have the highlight. I know we're not looking at the same version of the form, but this box is on both, I'm sure. So, is the box called "reference" the place where the inspector would write down [vital information]?

PD: We must not have the same version of the form.

Jamy: Right.

PD: The place to write down that information is in the box called "reference." It says "reference."

Jamy: Well, I wasn't sure. Because "reference" isn't intuitive to me. But if it's the language that the inspectors know, then we can just keep it. That's fine.

PD: It's right there in the yellow. We can move it.

Jamy: No, that's fine.

PD: The inspectors will know what "reference" means.

Jamy: Ok, so let's just keep it. But make a code sheet or something to put it in lay language.

PD: If it's not intuitive, we can change the form.

Jamy: No, don't change the form. It's fine. We can just make a note.

Do you see why I'm frustrated with him?

In order to get permission to do our survey, we have to submit a huge package of papers to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) under the Paperwork Reduction Act. The main part of the package is a "justification" that explains why you need to do the survey or "information collection" as OMB calls it. The "paperwork reduction" is for the people who have to fill out our surveys—the idea is to prevent duplication of effort. Fine, but the upshot is a package is almost 200 pages long. Luckily, most of it is submitted electronically. (It is an irony that escapes no one that something called the "Paperwork Reduction Act" causes us to produce hundreds and hundreds of pages of paper.)

We're at the end of one step of the process and I'm trying to get the package in the right format for OMB. There are "OMB police" who are employees of my agency who have to clear the package before we send it to OMB. I've been several rounds with these folks and made most of the changes they requested. I got to a point, though, were I decided it would be faster to have the contractor make the final changes. I wrote the Project Director a note last Friday (2/17) telling him exactly what I needed:
The final package should have the following items, each as a separate word document (not necessarily in this order--rather in the order they are mentioned in the justification):
  1. The justification, parts A & B (make the needed changes on the version I sent earlier)
  2. Form OMB-83I (I sent this to you, no changes are needed)
  3. The [technical] report [I just needed a clean version; the orignal had formatting problems]
  4. The Federal Register notice (again, just use what I sent, no changes)
  5. The [long] survey instrument, with the Paperwork Reduction Act statement on the first page
  6. The [first short] survey instrument (I've attached a copy and this is what you should use)
  7. The [second short] survey instrument (again, this is attached)
It took my contractor five business days to do this. This was after he called and had to ask many clarifying questions. Please note that I sent them copies of five of the seven items on the list. The other two items needed some words changed, but were documents the contractor had already submitted to me. I specifically gave instructions on how to send the documents to me via email.

Instead, today, I received by courier, a box with three hard copies of the new package (3x170pp) and two CDs. One CD with the Word files, zipped. The other CD with a PDF of the whole fucking thing. There are so many things wrong with this, I don't even know where to start.

It's not delivered in the manner I'd requested—namely email attachments. Then, there are silly duplications. The word files don't need to be zipped if they're on a CD—I'll have to unzip them anyway to check for errors. I don't need two CDs when both the PDF file and the Word files could easily have fit on one. Neither CD is labeled.

But, fine, I have the soft copies and that's all I need. I expected to open the zip file on the CD and find seven Word documents. Guess how many there were? Hint: a lot more than seven.

Eighteen. There were eighteen documents. Some were "dividers," (the contractor's word). That is, they just said, "Attachment 1" and nothing else. Useless when the whole thing is being submitted electronically.

The very worst part was that the long survey instrument was cut up into eight separate documents. I practically tore my hair out when I saw this. I knew I would have to put them all together and that would no doubt lead to anguish.

I ranted to my colleague, TR, and then to my boss. I shot an email to the contractor,
I am perplexed as to why the [long] survey instrument is divided into so many parts. This is confusing and I have to knit it back together for the OMB package. I don't know why some items have separate cover sheets and others don't.
It took them a while to respond, but they said that joining the eight documents into one would be troublesome, though they declined to say why. Eventually, a PDF of just that item arrived. I got rid of the "divider" pages, zipped everything up and sent it to the OMB police at my agency. It hasn't bounced back and I haven't heard from them yet—in this case, no news is good news.

I am scared about what will happen when they go into the field. They cannot carry out a simple request, they went over budget on the first phase of this project, the project director does not listen to me—what's going to happen when we get to the meat of this project? We're talking about a million dollar contract—the entire project is 1.4 million—but we only have million to put into it right now. And you know what that means? After these bozos screw up the data collection, get the sample weights all wrong and create an unusable database, yours truly will have to clean up the mess, do the statistical analysis and write the final report.

Oh joy.

Grateful for: the end of this work day.
Drop me a line.

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