Senators skeptical about Obama acquisition reform plan

They have seen the same lingering problems for decades and have see how agencies react to changes to acquisition.

Members of a panel of senators are skeptical of a chance for real reforms in government acquisition, even as the Obama administration is attempting to save $40 billion in the coming years and to rebuild the federal contracting workforce.

“I believe you need to understand that there will be resistance to this in some agencies, despite their evident need, because they’re going to want to spend the money on other things,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), the ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said Oct. 28.

Jeffrey Zients, the deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget, was the lone witness at the Contracting Oversight Subcommittee’s hearing. The senators questioned him about how the administration plans to really reform a system that has been stuck in its own inertia for so many years.

Zients talked about how the administration expects agencies to shave off $40 billion in excess spending by fiscal 2011 through better acquisitions. He also talked about OMB’s newly released guidance for civilian agencies to draw up their own strategies to develop their acquisition workforces. OMB wants increase the acquisition workforce by 5 percent at each civilian agency. In fiscal 2008, the workforce grew by 6.5 percent, and Zients said he expects to find the similar increases in fiscal 2009.

However, Collins said, “I’ve been at this a long time, and I’ve been on this issue a long time. And I know for a fact that it is not a priority in many agencies to build up the acquisition workforce. It’s far more fun and interesting and press-worthy to put the dollars into program people or to launch some new initiative.”

Zients said employee training is often the first thing to be cut because organizations don’t immediately see the results. But he said the agencies will submit their plans on how they will develop their acquisition workforce and it will include training. In the future, agencies will have to determine early in the budget planning cycle the acquisition workforce’s needs, and the need will dovetail with the following year’s fiscal budget proposal.

“I think we’re doing a lot,” Zients said. “I think it’s fair to say that the train has left the station.”

“I smell the sincerity,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), chairwoman of the subcommittee, told Zients. But she also questioned if the plans will work to restructure and fix the contracting system. “This is a mammoth organization to reform.”

Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) said he was frustrated by the Bush administration because it didn’t solve the many procurement issues that had been lingering for years. “We’ve spun the wheels for the last seven years,” he said.

Members of the panel said there's a need for a stronger workforce that can handle the growing number of complex, multi-billion-dollar procurements. To do that, there must be enough people to fill the vacancies and a bastion of workers that has the skills to understand what they’re doing.

“If we don’t solve the workforce issue, it’s not going to matter that we have good guidance. There won’t be anyone to do the oversight to better define the requirements,” Collins said.

“If we don’t have a well-trained, and sufficiently sized workforce our efforts are not going to succeed,” Collins said.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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