Buy Lines: Focus on the real issue -- the acquisition workforce

Stan Soloway

David Savafian, administrator-select for Federal Procurement Policy, has committed to making the federal acquisition workforce a top priority. This is music to the ears of those of us who have been concerned about a diminished degree of top-level administration attention to this critical community.

The challenges were recently reiterated in a Government Accountability Office report on the Transportation Security Administration. GAO stated: "The Office of Acquisition reports that it is having difficulty attracting, developing and retaining a workforce with the acquisition knowledge and skills required to accomplish TSA's mission." The same could be said of most government agencies.

As many have repeatedly observed, the government has a broad human capital crisis, and acquisition is not immune. Recruitment and retention efforts are not bearing enough fruit; investments in educational and professional development remain far too low; and with few notable exceptions, acquisition is still not treated as the vital government responsibility that it is.

Solving this problem requires an unyielding commitment to the workforce throughout both the executive and legislative branches. Some progress has been made by the agencies, although more needs to be done. Congress, despite the ongoing efforts of Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and others, still has a long way to go.

To start, the House and Senate are battling over numbers. The House version of the 2005 defense authorization bill includes a reduction in the Defense Department acquisition workforce.

In its version of the defense bill, the Senate countered with a requirement to modestly increase the Defense Department's acquisition workforce. But as the TSA report suggests, the issue is about more than numbers. Training, education and experience are also critical elements of the equation. As such, even if the Senate's proposed increases occur, it will be years before the effect is felt.

Unfortunately, other elements of the Senate bill ignore the human capital equation and would worsen the acquisition and program management challenges facing the Defense Department.

For example, the bill would prohibit awarding "oversight" contracts to companies that have a business relationship elsewhere with any of the companies whose work they are assessing, managing or evaluating. This is a solution in search of a problem. On the surface, it appears to be a reasonable effort to prevent conflicts of interest. But in reality, statutes and regulations include comprehensive conflict of interest rules and stiff requirements for mitigation plans. I am unaware of one significant case in which the problem presumed by the legislation has occurred.

That aside, the provision ignores that such contracts exist precisely because the government needs expert assistance in integrating, assessing and managing sophisticated requirements for which its organic capabilities are insufficient. This is partially the result of the pace of change in the commercial technology world.

It also reflects the government's shortage of adequately trained, experienced program and acquisition management personnel and lackluster history of investing in its people. For those reasons, these contracts are routine in everything from weapons systems to information technology, logistics, construction and more.

If passed, the provision would cut off the government from scores of qualified, high-performing firms that, as one part of their portfolios, offer management support services of a type the government needs. It would have an enormous impact on the department's ability to manage its missions and greatly exacerbate capability shortfalls.

These kinds of laws and regulations will do little to improve our acquisition processes. Real improvement requires understanding current realities and future impacts of any proposed policies. Ultimately, truly meaningful improvement hinges on the degree to which we focus on and invest in the real key ? the people. n

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council. He previously served as deputy undersecretary of defense. His e-mail is

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