Special hiring authorities for DoD’s acquisition workforce: too much of a good thing

Congress has taken a very active role over the past decade in trying to solve DoD’s acquisition workforce challenges by continuing to pass a series of special hiring authorities that let the department bypass the government’s usual hiring system.

In some ways, it may have been a little too active.

That’s one of the conclusions the Section 809 panel reached in the latest volume of its report to Congress on ways to improve the Defense acquisition system. There are now 44 distinct legal authorities Defense hiring managers can use to fill critical acquisition positions, and each of those pathways comes with its own caps and regulations.

The net result, the panel found, has been a web of rules that’s so confusing and cumbersome to navigate that many managers simply fall back on the government’s standard Title V competitive hiring procedures, which routinely take more than 100 days to onboard new employees.

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But commissioners said DoD could solve many of the problems itself. Rather than asking Congress to shrink its number of hiring authorities, the department itself should issue guidance listing the “primary” ones managers should turn to first. Doing that, the panel reasoned, would dramatically increase the chances that DoD would use the streamlined hiring tools it already has at its disposal.

In the panel’s view, the “master list” of primary hiring authorities should include:

  • Expedited Hiring Authority (EHA), a broad-based pathway the department has already used to hire roughly 30,000 people over the past decade
  • A new “super-DHA,” a consolidation of six different specialized direct-hiring authorities for fields ranging from technical and cyber experts to financial managers and test and evaluation personnel
  • The Pathways internship program
  • The SMART scholarship program for STEM graduates
  • The Cyber Scholarship Program

In the report, the commission found that in some ways, the department’s acquisition workforce is still suffering from severe 1990s-era budget cutbacks.

Its top-line numbers have, indeed, recovered from those cutbacks. In 2008, Congress and DoD jointly set a goal of hiring 20,000 new acquisition personnel. The department beat that target by 7,000 employees, mostly by using the EHA authority.

But the overall figures mask ongoing deficiencies in critical areas, including contracting, business and engineering. Those fields are still short by a collective 3,500 workers. And it’s not clear that the fast-track hiring authorities the department has used to date can account for the specialties the acquisition workforce will need to deal with the changing nature of warfare, said David Drabkin, the 809 Panel’s chairman.

“We want to be able to recruit, train, and retain these people, but we also need to look at the workforce of the future,” he said in an interview. “Because clearly the workforce of today will be outdated as we look at buying various things that we’ve never bought before in market segments we haven’t dealt with: artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, space, where we’re going to have to do a lot more work to stay ahead of our non-state actor near-peer competitors.”

Besides rationalizing DoD’s hiring authorities, the panel recommended that Congress expand and make permanent a pilot program called AcqDemo.

The performance-based program serves as an alternative personnel and promotion system for acquisition workers, giving managers more discretion over how to compensate employees than they’d have in the government’s General Schedule system. But so far, only about 38,000 of the department’s more than 150,000 acquisition employees are participating in AcqDemo; the Air Force is, by far, the program’s biggest user.

Commissioners argued the entire acquisition workforce should be phased into AcqDemo over the next five years, adding that their interviews indicated the program is widely seen as a success, including among some labor representatives who usually oppose alternative personnel systems.

“It has proven more flexible than the GS pay system, and retention is higher among high-contributing employees than among low contributors,” they wrote. “The managerial control that AcqDemo allows has improved DoD’s ability to compete for talent, retain the most highly qualified [acquisition workforce] employees, and motivate those employees to maximize their contributions to the DoD mission.”

And to ensure the department continues to have enough funding to pay its expanding acquisition workforce, the panel recommended changes to the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund (DAWDF), the pool of money Congress initially set up in 2008 to boost the workforce’s numbers.

Commissioners said a series of changes lawmakers have made over the last several years, including DAWDF’s funding sources, have created uncertainty over how much money will be available year-to-year and how Defense officials will be allowed to use the specialized funds.

So the panel said DAWDF should be made into a permanent fund whose funds do not expire at the end of any budget year. The pool would be filled, each year, with at least $450 million from unspent dollars that Congress has allocated to other Defense programs.

“Comparative analysis of the various DAWDF funding approaches over the past 10 years shows that when DAWDF is funded by expired funds with multiyear availability, DoD can execute almost all of its funding,” commissioners wrote. “At its most stable period in 2016, DAWDF executed 96 percent of available funds. This multiyear funding approach allows DAWDF initiatives to be resilient to unanticipated events such as sequestration, hiring freezes, and continuing resolutions (CRs). In turn, this resiliency provides stability and continuity in execution.”