The federal acquisition workforce is getting younger and less experienced, and that worries Congressman James Lankford (R-Okla.).
The chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform said agencies need to do more to train new employees to make the best acquisition decisions.
“We interact with lot of contracting officers that are very dedicated employee as well as contractors that are trying to do the right thing, but there’s a lot of confusion right now, it seems, on what is the right [contract] vehicle to use,” said Lankford in an interview with Federal News Radio. “There seems to be a tremendous transition of individuals where we have new contracting officers or fairly inexperienced ones who are getting their sea legs in this and trying to determine what levels of risk can they take in interpreting some of these rules in the FAR. It’s an interesting time of transition.”
Lankford said vendors tell him their staff knows more about the acquisition rules than many of the contracting officers they deal with.
This dearth of trained acquisition workforce puts agencies at risk for misspending money, he said.
To that end, Lankford is proposing a series of hearings over the next few months to try to educate his counterparts that the “pennywise, pound foolish” approach many in Congress have taken over the years no longer is a good one.
“We get the best value for the taxpayer when the contracting officer and people involved in it know completely, have confidence in what they are doing, can look at all the different vehicles and make good choices,” he said. “We have to allow that contracting officer to look at it and make good, wise decisions, they are the voice of the taxpayer at that point.”
He said the challenge is getting members to understand the benefits of spending a little money to save a lot of money.
“CBO can’t score that. They can’t score a savings a money over potential of better training, better equipped,” he said. “We know it will happen, but at the end of the day when we actually are voting on a bill, they can’t show there’s a savings that we know it’s coming. That comes just through education.”
Two administrations and several members of Congress have tried to improve the training the acquisition workforce receives. The Office of Federal Procurement Policy tried to work with lawmakers to create a acquisition training fund for civilian agencies, similar to the one the Defense Department has for its employees. The administration requested $158 million in 2011 for an acquisition workforce training fund. Congress approved no funding for the fund in either of the last two years.
OFPP tried to go around Capitol Hill by issuing new certification requirements for project managers and contracting officer technical representatives.
FAI found the number of 1102s—contracting officers—increased by 3,200 from 2008 to 2009, and up 6,200 since 2000.
The survey also found between 12 percent-and-25-percent of all employees in acquisition workforce positions were eligible to retire in 2009.
Lankford may be getting some help in pushing for more acquisition workforce training.
The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee passed the Federal Acquisition Institute Improvement Act in June and is waiting debate by the full Senate.
Lankford said the goal is not to create a new bureaucracy for training, but make sure the people in the workforce are well trained.
As a part of training, Lankford said he’s also concerned about the proliferation of multiple award contracts and how they limit competition.
“A contracting officer is going to what’s safe and what they know will work and where they had previous people. If you continue to do multi-award, if you continue to pull on people who have done it in the past and who you know can get it done, it’s the least amount of work and it’s the easiest,” he said. “The challenge of it is how do we start raising up subcontractors into prime contractors? We have to continue to raise up a new generation constantly of subs to primes and we have to get best value. Best value may not be putting all of these things together. We need to be able to reward contracting officers for doing the additional work and provide some incentives for them to go around that because that will save the taxpayer dollar in the end.”
He held a hearing in October on how agencies are using this process, and plans on continuing the subcommittee’s oversight of the process in 2012.
“HHS and DHS both have reports due to us by Christmas this year on their changes that are happening with suspension and debarments,” Lankford said. “Obviously, FEMA has a long way to go on this but they are active in taking that in. HHS, not so much. They’re one of the agencies that have not done suspension and debarments. They said during the hearing it’s their intention to get this done. It’s moving that from intention to actually accomplishing that. They have a tremendous amount of contracts. They can do it. It’s not too difficult. We just have to pay attention to it.”