Regime change cuts both ways

The status of the federal civil service and acquisition workforce is likely to be high on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's agenda this year.

The 111th Congress is now getting down to the difficult tasks, and many of the changes brought about by the elections are becoming clearer. 

Those changes are significant. For example, the successful effort of Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to become chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee and the retirement of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) alter more than just the names at the top of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's letterhead. The leadership changes have led to the arrival of many new key committee members, including Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), who won Davis' open seat. All told, it offers the opportunity for a major -- and welcome -- new tone to the committee's dynamics and style.

The committee's new chairman, Rep. Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.), can be tough and exacting, but by nature, he has a less confrontational and less dogmatic style than Waxman does. Towns is thoughtful and softer spoken, and although he has expressed concern about the state of federal contracting, he does not appear to share Waxman's often visceral approach. Moreover, with Democrats now controlling Congress and the White House, there should be less appetite to conduct nonstop investigative hearings that are designed to expose every mistake made by the administration and treat every programmatic failure as prima facie evidence of fraud.

So what should we expect from the committee? There is little doubt it will continue to focus on acquisition and contracting, but other issues are also likely to be high on the agenda, including the current and future status of the federal civil service and acquisition workforce. The government's workforce challenges are approaching a crisis. It's not just about numbers, it's about skills gaps and imbalances and a continuing struggle to compete for talent in a broader, global market. Those challenges must be addressed.

Fortunately, a unified government often has the ability to challenge long-standing orthodoxies and drive change that might not otherwise be feasible. Given the broad consensus on the need to reinvigorate the civil service — particularly in critical, highly skilled positions such as acquisition — the potential exists for creative and substantial initiatives. A number of panels and commissions formed in the past decade have delivered insightful recommendations, including the 2003 Volcker Commission on public service and the more recent Gansler Commission and Acquisition Advisory Panel.

However, such opportunities are not without peril. There is always pressure on a new administration and Congress to move quickly to address high-priority issues. But as one of my colleagues is fond of saying, "Speed kills." It can indeed make things worse, particularly when the issues involved require careful thought, debate and deliberation.

Also, the challenges of moving too quickly are exacerbated by the twin problems of not yet having key senior administration officials in place and having to overcome the fierce partisanship that has largely marked recent congressional debates on the issues in question.

Thus, it will largely fall to the new leaders of the committee that has primary jurisdiction over federal procurement policy to drive a new kind of dialogue — one that can lead to meaningful improvement rather than change for change's sake. A real opportunity exists. Now is the time to make it a reality.

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