A survey of several dozen senior leaders in the government acquisition community paints a bleak picture of challenges facing the acquisition workforce and perhaps an even bleaker picture ahead.
Among the worries of dozens of federal officials are that budget cuts threaten to undo what gains the government has made with regard to the size and quality of its corps of acquisition professionals, and a simmering war between the government’s audit and acquisition communities continues to prevent procurers from getting what agencies want from contracts. The Professional Services Council, an association of government contractors, and Grant Thornton, a consulting firm, conducted the research. Interviewers gathered input from 40 leaders across government. Most were senior acquisition officials, but the roster also included congressional staff members, Office of Management and Budget officials and others.
PSC and Grant Thornton have been conducting the same study since 2002. The most striking and troubling feature of the responses is how little they’ve changed over the intervening period, said Stan Soloway, PSC’s president.
“We were struck not just by the fairly clear consistency of the concerns they have, but by the fact that a number of the most critical issues being raised are the exact same issues that have been raised by respondents,” Soloway told reporters during a conference call. “If you’re asking a similar group of people the same questions for 10 years and their answers come back pretty much the same for 10 years, I think it’s fair to conclude that whatever you’ve been doing to address those problems isn’t working.”
The report, subtitled “an unabated crisis,” is a fair summary of its findings as a whole. With respect to the size and quality of the acquisition workforce, 71 percent of respondents said things have actually gotten worse over the last two years.
One major challenge is pure and simple demographics. Acquisition leaders say their most experienced people are getting very close to retirement, and the bench that’s in line behind them is fairly shallow.
The problem is especially acute in the information technology field, Soloway said.
“The IT workforce in government has a 7-to-1 ratio of people over 50 versus under 30,” he said, citing statistics from the Office of Personnel Management. “Put that together with what we found in this survey, and it suggests that it’s time for a really, really serious re-look about how we’re developing a very critical government workforce.”
As to the quality of the workforce, the survey found that training opportunities through formal institutions such as the Defense Acquisition University and Federal Acquisition Institute have become more abundant, even while quibbling with the quality of the education those organizations provide in some specific areas.
But leaders said acquisition expertise isn’t just about training, it’s also about experience and mentorship. And those mentorship opportunities are declining as experienced people get promoted or retire, Grant Thornton’s Phil Kangas said.
“We asked about how prepared the workforce was on negotiation skills, how prepared they were for the prospect of sequestration, and about complex IT acquisitions,” he said. “There’s a clear recognized need for those skills and a recognized lack of capacity for those skills. There’s clearly issues as to how prepared the government is on those fronts.”
Competition is tough for skilled people
Another key challenge is the cutthroat competition the skills agencies need in their acquisition workforces.
Part of the issue is that some of the major competencies that are critical to a lot of acquisition jobs, such as systems engineering, are in short supply across the economy. But the study’s authors said in government the issue isn’t so much that private industry is luring people out of the civil service, it’s that agencies are fighting for a limited pool of talent among themselves. “The agencies are waiting for someone else to do the training, and then using grade increases or other inducements to get them to move from one agency to the other,” said Alan Chvotkin, PSC’s vice president. “It’s more intra-governmental than it is folks moving to the outside.”
The Army’s Contracting Command is one example of that phenomenon. It made the decision to completely shutter its Washington contracting office last month because other federal agencies regularly were stealing the contracting personnel it had spent significant time and money to train.
“Some of the other services had told me that they don’t even do a training program. They just wait and hire our guys away,” Maj. Gen. Camille Nichols, ACC’s commanding general, said in a recent interview with Federal News Radio. “In a place like the National Capital Region, it was very difficult to retain our best people.”
Acquisition leaders in Washington also are deeply concerned about agency budgets being in a state of perpetual uncertainty. Among their concerns, they cited the prevailing notion that even if sequestration doesn’t occur, cuts to the civilian workforce are a near certainty. The government went through a wave of what are now widely regarded as unwise cuts to the acquisition workforce in the 1990s. But Soloway said there’s widespread concern that those lessons have already been forgotten, and that acquisition will be cut in equal proportion to the rest of the civilian and military payroll as the government gets more austere.
“We know the cuts are coming. The question is whether they’re going to be taken strategically or not,” he said. “In hindsight, thinking about it more strategically, you might not have cut all those areas equally in the ’90s. If you look at the technology requirements, you realize you need to protect and enhance your technology and acquisition workforces because they’re going to be the most essential. That’s not normally the way it’s done in government, because government tends to be very egalitarian in how it approaches these things. I think the lesson of the 90s, and what the folks in this survey are saying, is that that may be how we’ve done it in the past, but we can’t afford to do it that way anymore.”
Need to balance oversight requirements
The report also concluded government contracting experts are growing increasingly frustrated with the sense that they spend more time responding to various overseers — OMB, the Government Accountability Office, inspectors general and other auditors — than they do performing their day-to-day-missions.
The PSC findings are by no means a call for the abolition of oversight, Soloway said. But he said they do reflect a view from within the acquisition community that it’s more important to successfully survive an audit than to successfully negotiate a contract.
“It’s not just the overworking of the workforce with requirements that don’t add any value, it’s the message it sends to your workforce when compliance becomes more important than the outcomes,” he said. “We have people who are afraid to do critical thinking, and they’re increasingly wrapped around rigid, often non-value-added oversight.”
Tom Temin is the host of The Federal Drive, which airs from 6-9 a.m. on 1500 AM in the Washington, DC region and online everywhere. Tom has 30 years experience in journalism, mostly in technology markets. Before coming to Federal News Radio, he was a long-serving editor-in-chief of Government Computer News and Washington Technology magazines.