Acquisition workforce gets half-hearted support, survey shows

Survey finds poor communication, conflicting ideas retard progress

In the acquisition community, contractors, policymakers, overseers and procurement officials all want successful contracts, but they are deeply divided and disconnected from each other, several experts said today.

The acquisition workforce and inspectors general don’t talk enough about their work, and policymakers are somewhat disconnected as their policies are seen by employees as neither clear nor practical, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council.

The acquisition community faces the challenge of finding a balance between transparency and the outcome of a contract, said Lou Crenshaw, a principal at Grant Thornton.

Today, Grant Thornton and Professional Services Council released the results of a survey of 33 federal procurement executives on various procurement issues. The biennial survey revealed a widening chasm between the trajectory of acquisition policy and what government acquisition professionals believe will help their missions.


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Conflict of interest rules provide one major point of tension, as do acquisition workforce development and procurement reform initiatives, the survey reported.

In a survey in 2008, more than 90 percent of respondents said that oversight, such as investigations by agency IGs, the Government Accountability Office, and Congress, had increased. This trend continues in 2010, and of those interviewed, 83 percent said more resources are going to oversight activities than to contract administration.

Soloway and Crenshaw said the federal acquisition workforce would be best served with more overall resources to carry out its work. Soloway pointed to the resources put toward work on the economic stimulus law and the results.

Since the first of these surveys in 2002, the government has grown to believe in the acquisition workforce’s important role in operations. However, the flow of resources, whether funds or employees, doesn’t reflect that change in thinking, said Crenshaw.

“I need money to do my job,” said Crenshaw, a retired vice admiral in the Navy.

The survey results also underlined another divide between how policies are implemented and their original intent.

Soloway said the original intent of a number of policies have been skewed, because of a blanket perception of a problem. For example, the Obama administration wants agencies to check whether a project needs a contract with a fixed price or another type that is based more on a company’s performance. However, officials also have said they want the contracts with the least amount of risk for the government, which are fixed-price contracts.

Now agency officials have started to see fixed-price contracts as the only option, leaving little room for innovation, even when another contract type would be better, Soloway and Crenshaw both said.

“We’ll get round pegs in square holes,” Soloway said.

Officials need to reiterate the original intent of policies so agency officials can better understand how to respond when awarding contracts, he said.

About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Wed, Nov 17, 2010

After 22+ years of Government Contracting with all the changes which have taken place, we have lost integrity, ethics and most of all patriotism in our workforce. I believe that “Every” government employee should be required to attend an appropriation law course and it should be documented that they have received this training. This would significantly reduce the unethical request received by contracting, if they too could be held accountable for their requests. On a daily basis we are requested to perform questionable, unethical and at times illegal acquisitions. Management, which generally consists of quickly promoted interns, constantly use the “Think outside of the Box” rational to justify unjust acquisitions. There also exists a huge problem in defined lines of responsibility. Contracting Officers are required to enter into, administer, and/or terminate contracts and make related terminations and findings to include duties in any or all of the areas (Ref: FAR 2.101). However, we are constantly expected to become technical experts and create the Statements of Work, assist program managers in the majority of their responsibilities, hold the hand of budget analyst and train Accounting and Finance personnel. All this is required of Contracting Officers who are then expected to deal with the massive number of reviews required by the multiple layers of management (empire builders). If reviews were all we had to deal with, it would be manageable, but we are constantly required to re-accomplish our work to change verbiage to satisfy these reviewers until the contract no longer is representative of the Contracting Officer’s work. Yet we are expected to sign these documents and be held legally liable.

Tue, Nov 16, 2010

Anyone who boasts in the 21st century United States that the answer is more people is missing the boat. Acquisition is plagued by unnecessary comlexity and bureacratic politics. It all starts with Congress. The simple fact is that Congress is not accountable on these issues and creates laws that pile up and add complexity ad infinitum. There is simply no way to spin up enough people qualified to be KOs. The answer is to smack down the mess of complexity that Congress continues to add to. This can be done with coherent clean-up proposals combined with IT advances. Part of the clean-up is to eliminate agency-specific contracts, and narrowly focused systems that duplicate the functions of other systems that serve broader swathes of the government. The funny thing about complexity in process and organization is empire builders LOVE it. We need to starve the empire builders. Simplify and automate.

Tue, Nov 16, 2010 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Adding to the problems are the risk adverse culture and lack of any real accountability on behalf of acquisition personnel. Although the Obama Administration is trying to create a better culture for openness, OMB has been unable to successfully implement the desired outcomes. What we are seeing is like Mr. Soloway stated, recommendations turn into policy, without the proper analysis on impacts to performance. Training seems to be one vital activity that can help shape a better acquisition workforce, but even the definitions of acquisition workforce are incomplete. The lack of collaboration between program management and contracting also helps create disconnects in performance, as each side does not fully understand the other’s point of view. Innovation is vitality needed through the use of technology and standardization, but that does not seem like even an option at this point.

Tue, Nov 16, 2010

Anyone who boats in the 21st century United States that the answer is more people is missing the boat. Acuqisition is plagued by unnecessary comlexity and bureacratic policitcs. It all starts with Congress. The simple fact is that Congress is not accountable on these issues and creates laws that pile up and add complexity ad infinitum. There is simply no way to spin up enough people qualified to be KOs. The answer is to amck down the mess of complexity that Congress continues to add to. This can be done with coherent clean-up proposals combined with IT advances. Part of the clean-up is to eliminate agency-specific contracts, and narrowly focussed systems that simply duplicate the functions of other systems that serve broader swathes of the government. The funny thing about complexity is empire builders LOVE it. We need to starve the empire buildres.

Tue, Nov 16, 2010

Another misconception adversely affecting the quality picture surrounding contracting specialists/ officers is the appearance of a higher number of those individuals than is factually supportable. The number of federal contracting types (1102) capable of performing adequately is badly skewed due to a an inordinate number of warranted COs unable to actually perform their assigned functions, i.e. warrants have been issued to individuals in the past who tend to lack skills, business acumen, personal responsibility, etc. to act on behalf of the government in a responsible and highly intellectual manner. We have too many COs unable to grasp the the spohistication of formalized contracting!

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