Stan Soloway

COMMENTARY

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.

Reader Comments

Wed, Apr 14, 2010

I have been in the acquisition field for over 30 years yet here I sit, helplessly watching the slow and painful death of a career field that is important not only to those who serve, but to those who are served, the taxpayers. Yes, there are alot of beaucratic rules for contracting, and most of them were made because of some previous wrong. These days, Acquisition must answer to program and program dosent want to hear acquisition concerns, just "git-r-done". If Acquisition chooses not to do something they shouldnt be doing, the person is labeled as a "troublemaker" and replaced by a well meaning intern or ambitious specialist who dosent know any better. The interns are being "trained" incorrectly, incompletely and moved around so much they dont get to see a contract from pre-award to post-award. They dont know WHY they do a variety of things, they are just told to "do-it". They are not growing up in the field hence they dont have the feel for the profession. Its not their fault. To make matters worse the are promoted too quickly to keep them and are given a warrant before they are ready. They are given a false sense of their abilities for they are moved up in the ranks so quickly. The real kick has yet to be realized. These interns are brought in at 7s and 9's, and within 5 years, are 13's and 14's (and sometimes 15's), often before they are 30. The "new" retirement system (FERS)is mobile. So guess what, these kids will be topped out by 30/23 so they will take their Government training, their Contracting Officers Warrant, their experience AND their retirement out to the private sector and play in a more lucrative sandbox. We (the Govt) will get to start the process all over with more energetic, bright young faces and minds. This is not the way to retain an experience base. And we wonder why contracts are not going well?

Mon, Apr 12, 2010 Charles M. Smith Davenport, IA

Unfortunately, both of these actions, which undermine the authority of the contracting officer, were brought about by contracting officers failing in their duty to make independent and sound decisions, especially on the Army's LOGCAP program. The Army routinely ignored DCAA audits in negotiations with KBR, utilizing a contractor who provided positions supporting KBR, which the Army wanted. The post-negotiation memoranda specifically state that the results cannnot be reconciled to the DCAA audits becuase a different approach to settlement was used. This has led directly to DCAA empowering auditors to go to the IG when they face such issues. The Army also declined to withhold any payments from KBR while they continually operated failed business systems, which are essential to managing a cost contract. Pressure from the Commission on Wartime Contracting, which held hearings on this issue, led to the second move to mandating such withholds. These failures by Army contracting officials not only resulted in poor contract results; they have harmed the entire profession of DoD contracting officers.

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