Insights

DOD must replenish skills among employees

Defense Secretary Robert Gates released April 6 the major elements of the Defense Department's fiscal 2010 budget request in which the department set forth plans to significantly reduce or terminate a number of major weapons programs. In explaining the changes, Gates cited funding limitations and his belief that the department’s future systems’ priorities must be more geared toward low-to-mid intensity warfare.

That shift was largely presaged by his numerous speeches about what some call the “3-D strategy," in which diplomacy and development take the leading role in U.S. force projection and foreign policy, with defense playing a supporting role.

Gates also announced a five-year plan to replace with civil servants about 11,000 contractors providing acquisition support to DOD — about 20 percent of the total number of contractors in such roles, according to department estimates. In addition, he proposes to add another 9,000 positions to DOD's acquisition workforce. All told, Gates would convert a total of 30,000 positions in which contractors are providing support services to federal employees, including the acquisition positions.

Although it will have measurable impacts on some companies, Gates’ proposal is neither radical nor without reason. There can be little doubt that the department has suffered a severe atrophy of critical acquisition and related skills in the past 15 years. Thus, efforts to re-energize the DOD acquisition workforce and rebuild the department’s core capabilities are clearly needed.

Yet, it is difficult to believe that all 30,000 positions are critical positions. Moreover, the growth in contracting for those skills was not planned. Instead, it evolved principally because of the department’s well-known demographic challenges; a steady, 10-year trend of voluntary exits of mid-to-peak career professionals; and, most significantly, the short supply across the general economy of the skills DOD needs and for which it typically does not compete well. Those factors will remain for both the near and long term.

Significant questions remain. After all, the decision processes for insourcing and outsourcing involve the same key considerations. How will the department determine which positions should be considered for insourcing? What process will be used to ensure that any insourcing generates measurable cost and performance benefits? How will DOD avoid political pressure to justify insourcing for its own sake? How will it address the ingrained challenges of the federal personnel system, including the lack of pay for performance or consistent professional and leadership development opportunities, which virtually every survey shows to be among the most important factors job seekers consider? This is especially difficult in light of the suspension of the National Security Personnel System, which, imperfect as it might be, is designed to get at many of those crucial issues.

In the end, DOD’s biggest challenge has little or nothing to do with the number of contractors it has; rather, its greatest challenge is to execute a realistic, strategic workforce plan that is aimed at the workforce and department of the future, rather than one that seeks simply to rebuild what once was.

The good news is the department’s leaders understand this. They recognize the need to rebuild critical skills. And they recognize the need to look forward and prevent the pendulum from swinging too wildly. As they work through the issues and obstacles ahead, many with far less constructive agendas will certainly demand to be heard. But those who seek to be constructive partners are more likely to have real and meaningful impacts. Therein lies our challenge — and our objective.

About the Author

Stan Soloway is a former deputy undersecretary of Defense and former president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council. He is now the CEO of Celero Strategies.

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