How Do You Say “Consortium?”

By Iain Skeete

The terms “Other Transaction Agreement” and “consortium” tend to be synonymous. Although comfort with OTAs as a contracting mechanism continues to increase, there’s still a lot to be understood regarding what a consortium (and its manager) should be.

During my tenure as a Contracting & Agreements Officer, I spoke to numerous companies who felt being involved with a consortium simply meant one thing: pay-to-play.

Given that a paid membership is required to propose on a project (and, in some cases, even required just to see a solicitation), there’s some truth to that statement. However, this powerful collective of intellectual capital should produce much more.

Lately, there’s been an uptick in critics challenging the consortium-based approach commonly used to issue awards for prototype projects. Since using a consortium is not a requirement for OTA awards, calls for proving the Government’s return on investment (“investment” usually provided through a per-project management fee) have merit and are justified.

Responsibilities of a consortium manager, or CM, should exceed setting up a website, collecting proposals, and processing invoices. The CM must be expected to instigate member involvement while providing optimal conditions for collaborative output. Being a force multiplier of the consortium’s intrinsic value is a non-negotiable CM duty.

So, why does the output appear to fall flat? Where is the tangible combustion of ideas and experts? I believe the answer starts with the sponsoring office’s foundational intent and ends with the CM’s corporate skill set.

Motivation for establishing a consortium should not revolve around program office envy, a fear of the contracting unknown, or a company selling that it is the only path. Those scenarios translate into solicitations copied from whoever released one last, limited project flow, and poorly resourced government teams.

Selection of the right CM is just as important as the decision to pursue a consortium model in the first place. The government should sidestep firms who simply intend to serve as paperwork liaisons. Companies who tout expansive past performance but dodge discussions about meaningful metrics should be avoided.

The most prominent CMs are nonprofits, but that doesn’t mean they don’t make money. So, since the government is paying a fee for their services, the services rendered should go beyond what the government can provide for itself.

If the proposed services do not surpass the government office’s in-house abilities, then a few good Agreement Officers (supported by properly trained resources) can likely get the job done just fine.

Sponsoring offices must analyze if a genuine need really exists for an outside entity to execute far-reaching recruitment, host unorthodox collaboration events, and provide multi-faceted acquisition support. Introducing a consortium to reignite the competitive drives within a stale industrial base also provides strong rationale for pursuing the model.

At a minimum, companies interested in joining a consortium should research how soon members are involved with influencing the project’s problem statement; the collaboration mediums utilized; and the breadth of the consortium’s overarching scope.

Next, see if the CM employs a “push” or “pull” tactic as the basis for their outreach to potential members. The overplayed “if you build it, they will come” mentality of only pushing an opportunity out to a limited, pre-existing membership base hinders all stakeholders’ exposure to fresh concepts. Paying a membership fee to see what’s hidden behind the consortium’s curtain is an impediment to businesses on the fence about federal contracting and an obstacle to innovation.

In contrast, consortia that publicly post entire opportunities greatly increase the chances of discovering the next technological advancement. Seek to join an organization that actively recruits and pulls high-quality non-traditional partners into the equation. Those commercial visionaries may be your next teaming partners!

No CM can deliver value without a committed government partner, and consortium members cannot deliver solutions of tomorrow without a proactive CM dedicated to the mission. Although still dependent on the cogs of federal acquisition, a consortium can generate undeniable momentum (and incredible return on investment) if curated properly.

Even though most will continue to debate how to pronounce the word, let’s shift the discussion to focusing on the right definition of consortium. Perhaps it’s simply symbolic of the most basic foundational elements that remain untapped.