The NCMA World Congress came back last month.

Not that the National Contract Management Association’s annual confab ever went away. But the most recent event, at Nashville’s Gaylord Grand Opry Resort and Convention Center, drew more than 3,000 attendees in person, the most since the pre-pandemic days and double last year’s attendance. That means the World Congress featured not just its usual abundance of learning opportunities, but also the chance for serious networking, making new connections, and comparing notes with colleagues about the serious and challenging business of committing hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars each year.

To say nothing about the chance to hear and sample Nashville’s fabled musical and culinary sensations.

If the World Congress has a downside, it’s that NCMA doesn’t run it three times consecutively. Why? So many fact- and insight-filled sessions run simultaneously, you wish you could clone yourself and attend two or three at the same time. Luckily NCMA streamed the sessions for those unable to attend in person. Recordings will be available online.

Content-driven conference

Its sheer breadth of content ranks high on the list of World Congress qualities that impressed me the most. You can learn new insights on literally every phase in the lifecycle of federal contracting, from market research to contract closeout.

Session topics range from dealing with tough, day-to-day issues from deep within the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to imagination-stretching presentations of innovations possible under the highly regulated system of federal acquisition and contracting.

For example, I attended one session dealing with the issue of contract financing. From the Missile Defense Agency, Contracting Officer Marcus Abram and contract specialist Anita Stanford described in detail how and for which contract types the government can apply the various forms of financing available to the government under FAR 32.10 (a)(1). They enlivened the presentation with specific examples – federal and personal – showing the benefits and pitfalls.

By contrast, a presentation by Director Renee Wegrzyn and Deputy Acquisitions Director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health (ARPA-H) outlined a buying strategy using everything but the FAR. Because it buys prototypical, experimental products and services, ARPA-H works with other transactions (known as OTs), partnerships, cooperative and intermediary agreements, and challenge prizes. Yet the agency adheres to a careful risk management program, informed by that of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, after which ARPA-H is modeled – and where Wegrzyn was a program manager.

That range also extends to the people – representing the wide range of responsibilities and viewpoints that impinge on federal and, for that matter, non-federal buying.

For instance, I spoke with Jack Pellegrino, the director of purchasing and contracting for San Diego County, California, population 3 million-plus. Overseeing a multi-billion-dollar procurement budget, his responsibilities rival those of procurement chiefs for large federal departments. Pellegrino lamented that state and county access to governmentwide acquisition contracts operated by the General Services Administration, opened during the pandemic emergency, were closed off when the emergency ended officially.

Eric Christiansen of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command doesn’t run an agency, but his team developed a tool it shares with anyone who asks for it. It’s called the Independent Government Cost Estimate, a spreadsheet the use of which has greatly improved the accuracy of cost estimation and therefore the ability to manage contracts and predict performance.

Michelle Miller, senior procurement analyst and team lead for the Army’s Procurement Support Directorate, shared her experience in drafting solicitations that, if not protest proof, lessen the chances bidders will protest them. Often that requires upstream work, such as more thorough market research. Miller said a solicitation writer might learn of a potential selection or bid grading criterion soon enough to include it in the package. Too often, the criterion becomes manifest to the source selection team only after it opens the bids. That leaves the agency open to protest on the grounds it didn’t include the criterion in the original solicitation.

One other characteristic of World Congress bears mentioning. Not only government individuals attend. An equal contingent of contractors, attorneys and other experts, and federal program offices, such as NASA SEWP and the Health and Human Services NITAAC program, also participate in the discussions. These all enrich the conference, and let government and industry mingle and exchange ideas in an ethical environment. The “buzz” throughout the World Congress, in the sessions and in the hallways, definitely had a powerful vibe.

Oh, and about those Nashville treats? On a whim a lawyer friend and I taxied to a spot listed on a compendium of area diners. We ended up at Dino’s Fine Food – a popular dive bar with recognition by Bon Appetit and Anthony Bourdain – serving the best hamburgers ever.

Click here for more from the NCMA World Congress in Nashville.