FCW Forum | Acquisition

6 core capabilities that acquisition workers need

Any plans to insource must include efforts to rebuild the acquisition workforce

When I read the Office of Management and Budget’s July 29 memo titled “Managing the Multi-Sector Workforce,” I was struck by this sentence: “In particular, overreliance on contractors can lead to the erosion of the in-house capacity that is essential to effective government performance.”

Capacity is indeed an issue, but capability is even more important to the effective operation of government. Given President Barack Obama’s initiative for insourcing, agency leaders are actively conducting human capital planning analyses and working to insource those functions that are considered inherently governmental or critical. They are also laboring diligently to hire staff members to perform those functions.

All this activity has led me to ponder what we, as taxpayers, expect from our government in the way of core capabilities — and what functions are really “core” for our government to perform. Because this subject is extremely broad, let’s focus on one function that just about everyone will agree is a core government function: acquisition.

Acquisition affects nearly every other government function. Agencies have to buy supplies and services to get their jobs done. Generally speaking, the acquisition workforce is aging, understaffed, and, in some important areas, lacking in the skills and/or experience that are necessary to keep pace with the volume, complexity and evolutionary nature of 21st-century acquisition. Hiring new personnel will not solve workforce challenges immediately because skill and experience can only be gained over time.

This brings me directly to the subject of core capabilities. What core capabilities should we expect members of the acquisition workforce to have to be effective and efficient in their execution of the government’s mission, whether they are brand-spanking-new hires or seasoned professionals?

Our acquisition professionals and their leaders must:

  • Make good business decisions that serve the needs of the agency and ultimate customer, the taxpayer.
  • Have the fortitude to stand up and say when something is wrong, dumb, improper, unwise or illegal.
  • Do the right thing even if there are no rules telling them what to do.
  • Be willing to engage peers inside and outside the government and actively seek out the best ways to execute the mission.
  • Be ethical in all dealings.
  • Use common sense.

All those are easier to say than to do. Managers at all levels will claim that they and their staffs already possess those capabilities. However, I submit that some honest introspection might reveal otherwise.

We all know that pressure is routinely brought to bear on our acquisition professionals from powerful stakeholders to compromise, ignore, bend, streamline, etc. But in the end, there must be a recognition that the taxpayer is the ultimate stakeholder and customer and that the taxpayer’s interests need to be actively protected.

Individual agency leaders must create an environment in which acquisition professionals can operate as truly valuable business advisers, not simply requisition processing clerks. Congress can’t legislate acceptable behavior or those core capabilities, so we in the federal acquisition community must empower ourselves.

About the Author

Peter G. Tuttle is vice president of Distributed Solutions, an acquisition consulting firm, and a fellow at the National Contract Management Association.

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