Boosting the role of the CAO

The chief acquisition offier's role is a strategic function and not secondary to the importance of his or her C-level counterparts

Ron Falcone, CPCM, is vice president of Distributed Solutions, a company that develops software to support the federal acquisition process.

In March 2009, President Barack Obama issued a memo on government contracting to all heads of executive departments and agencies. The memo requires various federal management councils to develop governmentwide guidance to assist agencies in determining if existing contracts are wasteful, inefficient or not aligned with agencies’ needs. However, the memo makes no reference to chief acquisition officers and does not direct the CAO Council to support this important initiative.

Intentional or not, that oversight reflects the misperception that the CAO’s role is less relevant and secondary to the roles of his or her C-level counterparts, especially the chief financial officer, rather than a strategic function.

Given the Obama administration’s focus on collaboration, transparency, full-and-open competition, and greater use of fixed-price contracts, many acquisition professionals have questioned why the administration has not underscored the importance of the CAO's role in those efforts. At a minimum, such an emphasis would increase CAOs’ name recognition. But more importantly, the CAO must be invited to the table and given an equal voice in the discussions.

Fueling the misperception of the CAO's role is the fact that many members of the federal council are not explicitly designated as CAOs and some are even designated as CFOs. Government leaders must recognize that the acquisition and finance functions are separate and distinct but equally important because each provides strategic value to agencies’ missions. Governance of those two functions requires separate roles and responsibilities, especially as a means of promoting checks and balances.

Congress created the CAO position with the enactment of the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003 and confined it to noncareer employee status. There is debate about whether the CAO should be a career employee. Robert Burton, former deputy administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, has said he believes they should be. However, many in Congress take the opposite view and believe that only political appointees have sufficient clout to get the attention of high-level decision-makers.

SARA requires that CAOs collaborate with agencies’ senior leaders, including the senior procurement executive. In a recent survey, CAOs said effective collaboration with other C-level leaders, especially the CFO and chief information officer, was extremely important, and the consensus was that CAOs need to be guaranteed equivalency with other senior agency leaders. However, at many agencies, the CAO is part of the CFO’s organization, and the only way to achieve equal status is through organizational realignment.

"The role of the CAO has never been fully articulated nor understood," said Raj Sharma, president and co-chairman of the board of directors at the Federal Acquisition Innovation and Reform Institute. "Additionally, the position lacks any real power [because] those within the acquisition community (e.g., program managers) often report to other parts of the organization."

Separate governance by the CAO and CFO is consistent with the three tenets for openness in government: The government should be transparent, participatory and collaborative. The time to act is now. The Obama administration must raise the CAO's role to greater prominence. It is imperative that this administration add more teeth to SARA and lead the change necessary to elevate the CAO position to an organizational peer with the CFO and other C-level executives. Doing so would increase the CAO's influence in leading transformational change in acquisition functions and throughout the agency.

It is about more than having a seat at the table. It is about recognizing the relevance of CAOs and empowering them with the authority they need.

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Reader comments

Sat, May 22, 2010 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Effective leadership and proper execution can only happen with senior, experienced acquisition professionals who can provide consistency and continuity to execute. How can constant rotation in these positions be a successful business model? CAOs must have the ability to be strategic decision makers for an organization, and it is this lack of “clout” that continues to impeded progress of real reform and change needed to combat the waste, fraud, and abuse that is rampant in the federal acquisition process.

Wed, May 19, 2010 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM

Ron - great article. Unfortunately, not every agency has embraced the value proposition of having a CAO that is an equal to their CXO peers. Many acquisition problems begin at the top of an organization and permeate down through the ranks. CAO's with the appropriate level of authority can actively address solving these problems to the benefit of their enterprise and the taxpayer. We've all seen what happens when acquisition (specifically contracting) is relegated to being viewed as a back-office function without any voice or clout. All you have to do is look on the front page of the Post.

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