They keep the lights on

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- They manage millions of dollars in projects and investments. They work contracts lasting from a few days to a few years. They have eyes, ears and even a hand in almost every facility on base.

They keep the lights on.

“You never know what’s going to end up on your desk next week,” said Senior Airman Stephan Giorgio, a 366th Contracting Squadron contract specialist in the commodities and small services section. “It could be something completely random – you never know.”

Medical equipment maintenance and repair, service elevators, lights in the flight line’s sun-shades, TV capabilities in the gym and waiting rooms, the base water treatment plant, even paper towels and toilet paper; without contracting personnel like Giorgio, Mountain Home AFB would literally not be able to function.

But keeping the lights on isn’t as easy as paying the power bill and flipping a switch.

“There’s that fine line between being open and flexible, and still being able to get what we need,” said Staff Sgt. Nissi Scholl, a 366th CONS contracting officer and Giorgio’s supervisor.

Think of the contracting world like a giant, multi-faceted department store. Resource advisors – customers – arrive with a shopping list, and Giorgio – the sales associate – helps them find what they’re looking for. Sometimes they’ll have it in stock; other times, Giorgio will have to find a good alternative that still fits the customers’ needs and budget. The section manager – Scholl – ensures all the companies providing goods to this store – contractors – have a fair shot of being represented and selling their products, all while balancing which products to carry for customers.

“Our role is just to encourage competition,” Scholl said. “We’re relying on the customers to tell us what they need, so we can find the best value for them.”

Often times, it means a lot of research and site surveys.

“[We] do market research to see … if this product [or service] can do what you need it to do,” said Giorgio.

Sometimes it means a bit of compromise, like finding a similar product from a different manufacturer because it’s less expensive.

“Sometimes it’s better,” said Giorgio, “But people have a history with a certain product and it’s hard for them to let go.”

On very rare occasion, keeping the lights on means saying “no.”

“We don’t like giving a hard ‘no,’” Scholl said, “But we have certain government requirements.”

Like how long a request has to be posted to competitors before a decision can be made on which one to go with, particularly near the end of the fiscal year.

Although Giorgio and Scholl work in the commodities and small services section of the contracting world, their decisions all fit in to the grand scheme of things. At the very basic level, financial decisions made as low as the unit level can impact the entire wing, sometimes the Air Force as a whole.

But what about extra money left over at the end of the fiscal year? In the past, if it isn’t spent, the unit may have a smaller budget in the following fiscal year. Imagine a unit with a budget of $20K in FY 15, but they only spent $10K. Their budget for FY 16 could be $10K, and if the unit needs a $17K item replaced during that fiscal year, they won’t have the funds to do it.

However, the government has shifted away from this mentality in recent years, allowing more flexibility when it comes to budget spending. That doesn’t mean customers can spend frivolously, though.

“There has to be some flexibility because you never know what could come up from year to year,” Scholl said. “But at the same time, if you don’t need $5 million dollars every year, it should be understood you won’t get it.”

So when a unit RA wants the biggest and best flat-screen TV, Giorgio and Scholl are put in a tough position of finding balance between what’s best for the customer, the mission, the wing’s budget, dozens of contractors and future fiscal spending.

“Where we come in … we’re asking the question ‘why does it have to be this one; why won’t something else work?’” Scholl said.

They said the best thing a customer can do to get what they need – with as much “want” as possible as well –is to be both specific and flexible.

“We try to put the contract out there and get as much competition as possible; therefore we’ll get a lower price, saving the customer money,” Giorgio said.

It helps Giorgio understand where his customers are coming from, which means a better “shopping experience” for everyone.

“The more flexibility the customer has, the easier it is on us,” Giorgio said.

On the flip-side, Giorgio also advocates on behalf of his customers to get the best possible experience and value out of a contract.

“Let’s say the contractor does ‘x, y and z’ according to the contract, but the customer says ‘yeah, they did it,’ but they really wanted it done a different way; that can cause … the customer to not be too happy,” Giorgio explained.

There are a lot of moving parts in the contracting world. Thankfully, we have Giorgios and Scholls throughout the force to make sense of it all, so when we turn off the lights and head home for the day, we know they’ll be on tomorrow.

“It’s just about finding that middle ground,” Scholl said.

It’s how they keep the lights on.