Survey: Atmosphere 'tough' for acquisition workforce

The federal government procurement environment is tougher than ever before, overwhelmed by pressure from oversight organizations and constricted by conflicting initiatives, according to a new survey on government procurement policy and practice.

In the third biannual procurement policy report, issued today by the Professional Services Council in conjunction with accounting and business advisory firm Grant Thornton LLP, those interviewed said the acquisition workforce, politics and oversight organizations were their top three challenges.

"What the workforce and the leadership are telling us is that this is as tough an environment as they've ever seen," said Stan Soloway, PSC's president. The Arlington, Va., national trade association represents the professional and technical services industry.

"And it's just not tough because of the politics and the public flogging that have taken place. ... It's tough because the missions are getting tougher, the resources aren't always there, there are strategic contradictions within some of the initiatives [and] the tools aren't always there to do the job they're being asked to do," Soloway said.

The U.S. government is the world's largest buyer of goods and services. In fiscal 2005, it spent more than $374 billion, or more than 45 percent, of the national annual discretionary budget on goods, services and real estate or construction, the report said.

In the report, "Troubling Trends in Federal Procurement," more than two-thirds of the survey participants said their workforce is a main concern, with many employees being overworked and spending most of time on mundane activities such as processing funding actions. Many staffers lack the technical skills for managing complex contract vehicles, the report said. The retirement of top- and midtier acquisition professionals will create gaps in the career pipeline.

Many respondents also said that actions by Congress and the administration interfere with the steady and healthy operation of the acquisition process, according to the report. As of July, the 109th Congress had held about 100 acquisition related hearings ? twice as many as the 108th Congress.

Many of these hearings arose from allegations of procurement abuse and mismanagement regarding the reconstruction of Iraq and the Hurricane Katrina cleanup and recovery efforts. The hearings have been highly partisan and more contentious than in the past, the report said.

Nearly all survey participants said that acquisition and oversight communities do not have similar views on appropriate roles and responsibilities, the report said. Inspectors general offices, Defense Contract Audit Agency, other federal audit agencies and congressional staffs and committees too often criticize contracting officers after the fact for using procedures allowed under acquisition regulations, but not fully accepted by the various oversight bodies.

For example, in times of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, auditors focused on typical acquisition and audit guidance, rather than on the realities of the missions and that agencies performed them effectively, the report said. This type of oversight lowers staff morale and makes recruitment difficult, the report said.

Respondents also said auditors were seldom available to help in procurement planning, which could prevent some problems later.

If these troubling trends in federal procurement continue, the government will see a decline in its ability to be the smartest possible buyer of products and services, the report said.

The report also found that:

  • 55 percent of the survey participants said they felt encouraged and supported to pursue innovation and strategic thinking;
  • 57 percent said that federal contracting needs more transparency, defined as building partnerships with industry, but not as excessive intrusion and reporting requirements;
  • 82 percent said that when done correctly, performance-based acquisition, which is build around results to be achieved, is better than traditional contracting;
  • 77 percent said that small business preference programs should be revised;
  • 50 percent said that in the next five years there will be more use of lead systems integrators, contractors that supervise the work of other companies on the contract and in general manage the project;
  • 79 percent said the security clearance process is worse;
  • 62 percent said restrictions should be placed on moving government service work off shore;
  • and 80 percent said it is possible to form real buyer-and-seller partnerships between the public and private sector.

The survey's results are based on face-to-face interviews with 37 federal officials conducted during the spring and summer. They included senior procurement executives, high-level contracting professionals and congressional staffers.

The report will be available on PSC's Web site.

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