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Contracting officers exist because other federal employees are mostly prohibited from buying anything worth more than the threshold of a micro-purchase.
Only contracting officers possess a certificate or "warrant" -- explicit authority from the agency's senior procurement executive that spells out to the dollar the value of contracts to which they can bind the federal government. Warrant size and scope increases with experience, education and seniority.
Only contracting officers can obligate the government to pay a bill. A commitment from any other federal employee about a new contractual relationship is vapor until an actual contracting officer ratifies it. In many cases, he or she even makes the final purchase decision.
Contracting officers don't disappear once the contract is awarded. An administrative contracting officer (ACO) -- almost always someone other than the pre-award contracting officer -- signs contract modifications and handles oversight that can include approval authority over subcontractors.
Most companies also interact with contracting officer representatives (CORs), who are involved in planning big procurements and in monitoring vendor technical performance afterward. CORs can have influence over project management and the technology bought in support of a program.
Vendors often don't deal directly with contracting officers, but rather with contracting specialists, who are far more numerous than the officers who supervise them. Specialists do most of the legwork.
The preceding information was adapted and digested from the book "The Inside Guide to the Federal IT Market," published by Management Concepts Press. For more information, visit www.insideguidetofederalit.com.
Steve Charles is a co-founder of immixGroup, which helps technology companies do business with government. He is a frequent speaker and lecturer on technology and the federal procurement process. He can be reached at Steve_Charles@immixGroup.com