Many contracting reform efforts over the past few years have focused on building up the federal acquisition workforce. Now, faced with near-crippling budget uncertainty, agency acquisition officials are worried the progress of the past few years could stall.
Agency chief acquisition officers are growing increasingly concerned about the effects of the budget crunch on the acquisition workforce, according to an exclusive Federal News Radio survey. Retaining the existing acquisition workforce was the No. 1 priority identified by CAOs, followed closely by more workforce training and hiring more acquisition workers.
The survey of chief acquisition officers and other senior-level procurement managers was sent in January 2013 to 112 people. Twenty-nine responded — a 26 percent response rate.
Budget uncertainty has accelerated concerns about the state of the acquisition workforce.
“We are in danger of losing the quality of the acquisition workforce that we have worked so hard to develop,” one survey respondent wrote.
And acquisition officials say agency budget woes are already having an immediate impact. Nearly all of the CAOs surveyed — 93 percent — said their workforces are already feeling the effects of agency budget challenges. CAOs said efforts to retain workers would be the most impacted by budget reductions, followed by new hiring and training.
Meanwhile, just 28 percent of respondents agreed that their agencies were still hiring acquisition workers.
Even without the current budget woes, retaining a quality cadre of acquisition professionals is challenging work.
“Within acquisition, specifically in the contracting field, it’s hard to retain people,” said Nick Nayak, chief procurement officer for the Homeland Security Department in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose.
For one thing, the role of contracting officer is codified within the federal government, making it a competitive career field and contributing to high turnover, Nayak said.
The acquisition workforce is particularly prone to attrition, in part, because of the the makeup of the current workforce, which is weighted toward retirement-age workers.
Nayak said about 40 percent of the DHS acquisition workforce has between one to five years of experience, while another 40 percent is hovering around retirement age, he said.
To help develop the next coterie of program managers and contracting officers, DHS implemented a three-year intern program for its acquisition workforce, Nayak said.
The program is helping fill gaps, Nayak said. But he acknowledged that maintaining the acquisition workforce remains a concern.
“If you have 40 percent of the workforce that is retirement-eligible, we just don’t don’t know when that 40 percent are going to take off,” he said.
Mythbusters gets mixed reception
Along with budget wrangling, agency CAOs must juggle a number of competing priorities and mandates set out by the administration to improve the acquisition process.
Many of these initiatives are receiving a mixed reception from the acquisition officials at the front lines of federal procurement, according to the survey.
The survey points to a pessimistic outlook of one of the administration’s signature acquisition initiatives — the Mythbusters campaign. Fully, 52 percent of respondents said the initiative designed to bolster communication between agency acquisition shops and vendors has not been effective.
However, 80 percent of respondents said their agency communicates effectively with industry on procurement matters.
Nayak said the issuing of the series of Mythbusters memos was a good first step.
“That’s a positive message coming at the highest level to the acquisition workforce across government,” he said. “If you’re in the trenches, actually doing the work and awarding contracts, you know intuitively that engaging with industry’s important.”
CAOs working under increased scrutiny
And as if the budget uncertainty and the increasing workload faced by acquisition professionals weren’t challenging enough, CAOs say they’re working in a new environment where their work is constantly under the microscope.
Eighty-eight percent of CAOs said oversight of the acquisition process by agency inspectors general, the Government Accountability Office and Congress has increased over the last year.
But that increased scrutiny also has its benefits, helping to cast a light on the importance of their work; 60 percent of respondents agreed that acquisition planning has become more important at their agency over the past year.