Buy Lines: Fill the leadership gaps now

Stan Soloway

Across government, highly talented individuals hold critical leadership positions and titles preceded by an unfortunate modifier: acting.

We have an acting administrator for federal procurement policy, an acting administrator of the General Services Administration, an acting deputy administrator of GSA, an acting director of defense acquisition and procurement policy, and even a newly announced acting commissioner of the recently formed Federal Acquisition Service, who will be replacing the acting commissioner.

Other important positions at the Homeland Security Department and elsewhere need to be filled. If ever there was a time for moving quickly to fill this almost unprecedented leadership void, this is it.

From the reorganization of GSA and the proposed rules governing time-and-materials contracting to the acquisition reviews at the Defense Department and continuing legislative concerns, today's acquisition challenges highlight the pressing need for strong, focused acquisition leadership. Unfortunately, when even the most talented professionals are "acting," their ability to provide that leadership, drive change and resist regression is severely impaired.

Significant turnover at the end of an administration's first term is common. It also is well established that attracting high-quality people to government service is growing more difficult. But the number of key procurement positions led by an acting official is significant by any measure and constitutes a problem that merits immediate attention..

This is particularly true at GSA, which is in the midst of a major reorganization. One of the most important aspects of that reorganization revolves around lines of authority and the problematic inconsistencies in contracting and business practices across the department's regions and centers. Without effective, permanent leadership at the top of the agency during this critical phase, it will be almost impossible to cleanse the system of those inconsistencies and realize GSA's optimum capabilities.

Two proposed rules governing time-and-materials contracting are out for public comment. In the view of most in industry, the rules are significantly, if not fatally, flawed. The rules go beyond their underlying statutes and place new burdens on the acquisition workforce. As a result, the rules likely will create powerful disincentives for agencies to use time-and-materials contracts, even when doing so makes sense.

Further, because the rules sharply limit legitimate profit and fundamentally alter the ways in which subcontractor labor can be billed, they also create powerful disincentives for companies to do any more than the most minimal and essential subcontracting. They could create perverse "make-buy" dynamics that the government will greatly regret in the future.

It is going to take strong leadership to make the GSA reorganization work well and to get those rules right. That leadership will need the credibility to explain the often complex realities of procurement to an increasingly skeptical Congress.

That leadership also will need the clout to stand up to those who remain opposed to the use of innovative business models or to allowing other than the most modest of profit, even on competitive, commercial contracts.

Getting the right people identified and confirmed for these positions is a big challenge, but that doesn't obviate the critical need to move quickly. The positions now open are central to the effective execution of numerous vital government missions. Procurement has become a priority focus for both Congress and the executive branch.

Getting the right leadership in place quickly also should be a top priority for both.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council. His e-mail is soloway@pscouncil.org.

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