How not to build an acquisition workforce
Recent actions undermine efforts to maintain a strong cadre of acquisition employees
Stan Soloway is president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council.
Across the government, agencies are renewing their efforts to build the critical skills they need to effectively manage and deliver the government’s missions. At the Defense, Homeland Security and State departments and elsewhere, well-intended initiatives have been launched to ensure that the government has the core skills it needs. Although concern is rapidly growing that, despite the intention of leadership, some of these initiatives are devolving into quota-driven exercises in which illusory savings assumptions dominate and numbers matter more than skills, there is little debate that when done right, they are necessary.
Of course, the government still faces significant obstacles to its ability to hire and retain these critical capabilities, from a broken personnel system to other personnel practices and policies, which are often at odds with what the workforce of today demands and expects. As such, in seeking to enhance workforce capabilities, clear signals must be sent to existing and prospective employees that the work they are or will be doing is important and they will be highly valued and treated as capable, empowered professionals. After all, to be competitive for talent that is in short supply across the economy, an employer must appeal to the professional ambitions of its target audience.
Nowhere is this need more evident or important than in acquisition. Yet quite the opposite is taking place. Although under law and rule, it is contracting officers in whom the government has vested the sole responsibility for awarding and managing contracts, assessing performance, and approving payments, recent actions serve only to undermine their role and eviscerate the professionalism of the workforce.
For example, last year, the Defense Contract Audit Agency issued new guidance telling auditors that if they did not approve of a contracting officer’s treatment of an audit report, the auditor could elevate the matter to the inspector general. This was widely seen as a slap at the acquisition community and a rebuke of longstanding regulations that make clear that it is the contracting officer’s responsibility to determine the most appropriate response to an audit. Then in January, a new defense acquisition regulation was proposed that would mandate that if a company fails a systems audit for even a single, minor reason, the contracting officer will be mandated to withhold 10 percent of all contract payments until the problem is resolved — regardless of the severity or relevance of the problem identified in the audit.
Forget the poor logic of receiving a failed audit for a minor matter that can be resolved quickly or the enormously detrimental effects the guidance could have on companies. The proposed rule further devalues the contracting officer’s judgment and responsibility to determine a problem’s significance or relevance. Similarly, other efforts are now under way to eliminate a contracting officer’s discretion over whether and where to allow the rollover of award fees. Indeed, we are rapidly re-creating an acquisition system — and workforce — founded on rigidity and mandates rather than business judgment and critical thinking.
This is a growing concern in the government acquisition workforce and is one that should concern us all. It is never healthy to have a critical workforce feel hemmed in, untrusted, and unable to make the kind of reasoned business decisions for which they are held accountable — and are trained to do. Sure, there are skills gaps throughout the government, including in acquisition — and, as Congress has noted, in auditing. And there is widespread agreement about the need to improve and grow the acquisition workforce. But it is counterintuitive to continue to tear down the very workforce you are theoretically trying to build up. Unfortunately, that’s just what is happening today.