Buy Lines: Fear and second-guessing in the acquisition community

Professional Services Council's third biannual federal procurement policy survey, released this month, identifies and explores prominent issues and concerns in the government's acquisition workforce and leadership.

Based on interviews with more than three dozen agency contracting officials, congressional staff and other professionals, the survey offers a window into a community in the cross hairs. It portrays a workforce that lacks sufficient resources, training and support.

The wide-ranging survey covers major policy initiatives, oversight, training, interagency contracting, contractor roles and small-business policy.

Respondents sounded common themes throughout:

» Many of the initiatives are strategically logical but sometimes poorly coordinated or in conflict with one another.
» Innovation is urged but rarely rewarded or supported when the going gets tough.
» A chasm is growing between the acquisition and oversight communities. As one respondent said, "we simply do not see things the same way."

These findings are troubling, particularly given the central role that procurement and acquisition play in the functioning of our government. As the new face of government leads to an ever growing partnership with the private sector, it is imperative that these sentiments be taken seriously, coming as they do from the very federal workforce asked to execute increasingly complex and vital missions.

The increasing politicization of procurement has taken its toll on the workforce.

Fear of being caught in the "gotcha" game, now so prevalent, is driving down morale and inhibiting innovation and responsible risk-taking.

Respondents said the acquisition community is stuck in a cycle of constant second-guessing, in which they see their detractors in the oversight community, Congress and elsewhere often lacking a clear understanding of the process and mission realities.

A lack of clarity surrounding the interplay between e-gov initiatives, such as the lines of business and strategic sourcing, and acquisition priorities, such as performance-based acquisition and competitive sourcing, are creating confusion and often less than desirable results.

Despite its central role in government, the acquisition community does not yet see itself as a full partner at the strategic management table.

Notwithstanding the disturbing picture that the survey paints, hope and opportunity lie ahead. For example, General Services Administration Administrator Lurita Doan asked senior leaders in her agency to read not only the report, but also to work with her to further their understanding of how the issues are playing out at GSA.

Additionally, the investigations and hearings that many believe will dominate the House agenda in the new session offer an important opportunity for substantive dialogue, rather than more hyperbole.

If committee leaders and their staffs are willing to stop finger-pointing and opt for in-depth exploration of the root causes of problems, plus sincere attempts at finding solutions, the hearings could be positive.

But if they are used merely as stages on which to strut and bluster about corruption and ineptitude in federal procurement, the problem will only get worse.

Despite its many challenges, the federal acquisition process functions remarkably well. And the people charged with its execution are among government's most dedicated personnel.

In keeping with the basic tenets of strong leadership and management, we would all do well to listen to what they are saying, and respond accordingly.

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

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