The Obama administration’s top procurement official said Wednesday the government has made gains in recruiting and training new members of its acquisition workforce, while also warning Congress about the consequences of rolling back those improvements.
Dan Gordon, who will soon leave his post as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy to head to a new job at George Washington University, said he’s very concerned that the progress the government has managed to make over the past few years with respect to regrowing its acquisition workforce is at risk as agencies and Congress look to trim budgets.
The ranks of clearly identifiable government contracting professionals grew by roughly six-and-a-half percent between 2009 and 2010. This comes after a 2000-2008 period in which contracting doubled and the contracting workforce stayed flat, Gordon told the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform. But the drive to reduce government spending could alter the trajectory of acquisition workforce improvements, he said.
“The progress we’ve made over the past two years is at risk,” he said. “Budgetary pressures risk slashing the federal acquisition workforce, whether it’s a matter of cutting salaries, cutting benefits, showing disrespect for our federal workforce, cutting the numbers of people or cutting the training that they’re getting. We cannot protect the federal acquisition process without a good federal acquisition workforce. I’m very concerned that budgetary pressures are going to unroll much of the progress we’ve had.”
Gordon told members of the subcommittee the inadequate acquisition workforce of the 2000s manifested itself with real consequences for government procurement. The results, he said, were poor communication with industry, badly-defined government requirements, too many sole-source contracts, poorly run competitions and not enough contractor oversight.
Contractors know more
And in too many cases, even today, contractors are better at navigating the federal procurement system than government contracting officers are, Gordon said.
“We can’t have situations where we have contractors knowing way more than us,” he said. “We need to strengthen our people so that they’re knowledgeable. Contractors are incredibly important, but they’re supporting us. We need to be knowledgeable enough so that there’s a balance.” The government has plenty of training programs for acquisition professionals, most notably with the Defense Department’s Defense Acquisition University, which trained 57,000 people over the past year. But Congressman Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) said he worries there’s not as robust a program for feds who handle acquisition for civilian agencies.
“When I look at the comparison between how it’s done in the defense world and how it’s done in the rest of the civilian agencies, it’s so unbalanced,” Connolly said. “In terms of training resources, a lot of the people who get training in the civilian world end up having to go to DAU, because we simply don’t have the resources in the Federal Acquisition Institute to do the training.”
Connolly has proposed legislation that would boost funding for the institute, set up more uniform standards for acquisition training in civilian agencies and place it under the control of Gordon’s office.
Gordon wants FAI to stay put
Gordon said he’d actually prefer that FAI continue to operate within the General Services Administration — where it is now. But he agreed that a lack of formalized training programs geared toward civilian-agency acquisition personnel has been a problem. “Online training is one of the ways to overcome that challenge,” he said. “DAU is working with FAI and others to share their resources. It’s true that when civilian employees go to DAU, they sometimes feel that it’s not beneficial, because it’s so oriented toward DoD. But the more those two institutions share their resources, the further our taxpayer dollars are going to go.”
Roger Jordan, the vice president of government relations for the Professional Services Council, a group that represents contractors, said his members agree with Gordon. They want to see the acquisition workforce grow and become more competent.
“A well-educated customer is really our best customer,” he said. “We do find we’re having to do a lot of education on acquisition-related issues. It would certainly be beneficial to both sides if an understanding is brought to the table in advance, so we can get to the business of contracting instead of educating.”
The council thinks the acquisition workforce has become unnecessarily standoffish with industry over the past decade, Jordan said, and a lack of training has led contracting officers to make decisions that vendors don’t understand, such as insisting on fixed-price contracts in situations where they’re not appropriate.
Even with DAU, DoD struggles But even with the well-established DAU in place, the Defense Department hasn’t been exempt from training challenges. Katrina McFarland, DAU’s president, said when DoD rolled out the department’s Better Buying Power initiative, it quickly realized its acquisition workforce didn’t have the skills it needed to meet the call for driving better business deals that the initiative originally envisioned.
“What can you do to improve that? In fixed-price, for example, you have to explain to people where they find the right resources to figure out cost and price certainty,” McFarland said. “You have to have a good understanding of the configuration of the item before you try to engage in a fixed-price contract. Unfortunately, people engage in acts of compliance rather than acts of understanding. That critical thinking is one of our challenges.” In the meantime, FAI still is working to develop training programs that can work for civilian agencies, and are relevant to each agency’s mission.
“The Chief Acquisition Officers Council just approved us to establish a training collaboration board,” said Donna Jenkins, FAI director. “That would enable us to discuss any courses we’re going to develop. We can come up with the 80 percent solution once, and then leave room for agencies to add their specific mission requirements in the remaining portion. I think that’s a good role for FAI.”