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Ask a USAID Contracting Officer: Q&A with Justin DiVenanzo

Mountain landscape in Rwanda
Jan 12, 2022

Justin DiVenanzo is Director of the Office of Acquisitions and Assistance and Supervisory Contracting Officer with USAID/Rwanda. He joined USAID in 2010 and has served in Liberia, Pakistan, South Africa, and on the Power Africa Initiative during its expansion. He recently shared guidance for implementing partners on LinkedIn that was received with great enthusiasm among members of the partner community. We spoke with him to further understand the context of this guidance and to gather more insights from his extensive experience as a USAID Contracting Officer.  

Q: What do Contracting and Agreement Officers do at USAID?

Justin DiVenanzo, USAID

A: Contracting Officers have the authority to bind the federal government by executing, administering, or terminating contracts, cooperative agreements, or grants. At USAID, and especially with the cohorts with whom I started, we are business advisors. We are the folks that I think every Mission Director would want in the room to talk about the quality of implementation, cost, schedule, and most importantly, the effectiveness of our development interventions. We can help shape the design of a project and the procurement so we can engage industry in the best possible way to get the best possible technical solutions. And then we work with our technical representatives, the Contracting Officer's Representatives (CORs), if we’re talking acquisition, or the Agreement Officer's Representatives (AORs), if we're talking assistance, to make sure that we work with the contractor or recipient to be successful. 

Q: How do you engage with implementing partners in Rwanda?

A: We know with newer or local implementers, we need to be patient. The onus is on us, USAID, to ensure that these implementers are successful. And although this takes time and level of effort, it's ultimately more rewarding. In Rwanda, nearly 30 percent of our bilateral award portfolio is already implemented by local organizations largely in the health space, and they’ve achieved some incredible results. And I honestly believe it's because we communicate as a team. We leverage the implementers’ deep knowledge of local context and stakeholders—and by we, I mean technical, financial management, acquisition, program, and our implementers. We identify issues very early on, and we troubleshoot them together. 

Q: What guidance do you have for partners when they submit requests?  

A: Essentially the guidance I would have for implementers when submitting requests is to tell me a story: who, what, where, when, and especially why and how. Tell me why I need to approve it. Because if I don't need to approve it, then why are we using resources and just adding administrative burden? Walk me through how you complied with the authorities that require the approval. But, most importantly, just tell me how this advances effective implementation.

Q: What are some common issues that you see when you receive requests?

A: It seems to me that the most common issue with requests boils down to one thing: insufficiency. A Contracting Officer can expeditiously approve a request if they understand it and could explain it to a theoretical third party. 

I think what people often forget about the contracting function is that it's stressful. From time to time, we engage with the Inspector General and Government Accountability Office (GAO), and our work is reviewed by our wonderful colleagues back in Washington—all extraordinarily important functions from a public procurement perspective. 

At the end of the day, we want to ensure our decisions can withstand external scrutiny. So without a compelling justification, right from the outset, we'll face the suboptimal result of a myriad back-and-forths between the Mission and the implementer, which no one wants.

Q: Why do you think the guidance you shared on LinkedIn was so popular?

A: I think implementers responded positively, especially local organizations, because they have viewed the Contracting Officer as the figure behind some mysterious black curtain. And they did not like the guessing game of what it takes to get to yes on a request. I should note that I did not drum up that guidance in a single day. I actually collected all of my typical questions for major categories of requests from over the years. 

I shared it because I fundamentally believe that USAID—especially the Contracting Officer—needs to spend less time with these administrative actions, although they are important, and more time focused on deeper questions related to design, innovative procurement strategies, and, again, effective implementation. So if we can reduce the time necessary on those types of requests, then I can spend more time with our AORs/CORs, technical office directors, and implementer key personnel on how to build capacity, amplify results, minimize risk, or collaborate with other implementers in a more meaningful way.

Q: What advice do you have for partners working with USAID? How can they effectively engage with their Contracting Officer or Agreement Officer?

A: It just so happens I delivered this message last week when our amazing health team hosted their implementers. Do not be afraid of your Contracting Officer—engage! Of course, each individual Contracting Officer may frame that engagement differently based on their unique circumstances. The Contracting Officer, the Contracting Officer’s Representative, and activity managers and technical office structures exist to facilitate successful implementation. So don't wait if an issue surfaces, because it could become difficult to remedy at a later date.

Q: What do you wish partners knew about USAID Contracting and/or Agreement Officers or USAID in general?

A: I would say that Contracting Officers at USAID are not just bureaucrats. I would bet most of them envision themselves as development entrepreneurs who want to implement the next big idea, you know, whether that is co-design or co-creation, to potentially using other transaction authorities to redefine transformative partnerships like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) does or the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). 

I think Contracting Officers at USAID see themselves as enablers. We want to open the doors to effective development. But again, this is a team sport that requires collaboration, transparency, and hard conversations if we want to achieve what's truly important. 

USAID, to me, is one of those agencies where you can actually get a human being on the other side of an email or a phone call. And we're here to make the system work for new and underutilized partners, local organizations, U.S. small businesses, and others because we really do want the best possible technical solutions, and we do need to broaden our partner base in order to get those. We're not talking just the incremental movements and advancements in development—we're really looking for those game-changing exponential ones.