Fairness in Dispute: Understanding the Principles of Equity, Equality, and Reciprocity in Federal Procurement Contracting

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Virginia Tech

This dissertation explores "fairness" as an ethical construct within federal procurement contracting using 3,548 contract dispute decisions published by the Armed Services Board of Contract Appeals (ASBCA) between 2007 and 2021. It employed a multi-faceted, mixed method research design at macro, mezzo, and micro levels that used a blend of descriptive analysis, computational text analysis, and qualitative thematic analysis to explore a little-studied operational domain within public administration. This investigative approach made possible an examination of how fairness manifests in federal procurement in three aspects: equality (competition), equity (contractor demographic identity), and reciprocity (dispute resolution outcome). Aspects of Moore's Public Values Framework were combined with Lipsky's theories regarding street-level bureaucracy and Maynard-Moody and Musheno's conceptualization of frontline workers as knowledge agents to examine the "human" dimensions of administrative discretion in procurement. In addition to explaining the fundamental differences between "fairness" (between individual entities) and "justice" (fairness writ large at the societal level), the dissertation demonstrates how power dynamics between the government sovereign and its commercial civilian partners complicate contract relationships. Its quantitative findings suggest that fairness is impacted by procurement complexity, entrenched arms-length contracting relationships, and strictly construed risk apportionment when contingencies adversely impact contract performance conditions, and that contractor identity plays some role (though its extent is unclear) in the generation and resolution of particularly contentious disputes. This study's qualitative findings indicate that both parties perceive a breakdown in the contractual duty of "good faith and fair dealing" when rivalry is pursued over cooperation, when the parties fail to understand or respect each other's responsibilities and constraints, and when the behavior of government contracting officials creates role confusion between the protection of government interests and the legislatively required fair treatment of contracting partners. Ultimately, this dissertation speaks to ongoing discussions in diverse fields and disciplines such as public administration, organizational studies, empirical legal research, and relational contracting. It also contributes to developing theories regarding complexity in procurement and existing contracting studies from both sociological and economic perspectives.

computational text analysis, relational contracting, adminstrative discretion, organizational studies, ethics