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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Reader comments

Fri, Oct 16, 2009

It should be mandated that non-contracting personnel that are invovled in contracts (project managers, techinical advisors, ect) take a course in basic contracting and contract law.

Tue, Oct 13, 2009

Clever response. It makes practical common sense. Stakeholders and other customers don't need to be the experts in the acquisition field but they'll need to empower themselves with the required knowledge. Ultimately, ALL parties are accountable for the outcome.

Tue, Oct 13, 2009

I see an increasing number of procurment specialist and contracting officers who do not know what FAR provisions should be added to a solicitation and which ones should not. They lack the basic knowledge of the FAR provisions and when challenged about adding non-appropriate provision, don't seek guidance and meerly ignore the problem. The contracting community needs to first focus on training the basics of the Government procurement system.

Sat, Oct 10, 2009 Jaime Gracia Washington, DC

Human capital planning strategies will be the key to acquisition reform in regards to workforce issues, combined with a needed change of culture to make acquisition professionals business advisors. The acquisition workforce is currently a fragmented one, with little visibility into who makes up the acquisition professional and the current misguided designation of 1102 and administrative roles. There needs to be a paradigm shift, such that 21st century workforce management skills are leveraged with Web 2.0 collaboration tools to create a world-class acquisition process, and a new, highly skilled workforce that has combined expertise in contracting, program management, and requirements development. The 21st century acquisition professional would be well versed in these full life-cycle skills to be a business leader, manager, and trusted advisor. We have to focus on skills and capability gaps, and the first step is getting talent and not just numbers.

Wed, Oct 7, 2009

As a senior Government contract specialist who also has considerable private sector experience, I agree whole-heartedly with your set of attributes. Embedded in all of these is the ability to exercise judgment. This implies individualistic behavior that is not encouraged by the current environment, which prefers a cookie-cutter approach to hiring, training, certification, and performance. This is not business and does not lead to wise business counsel to customers. I attribute this condition to the crushing superstructure of law and regulation which has succeeded in doing nothing to the benefit of Government acquisition, but has rather added to the complexity, time, cost, and chaos of buying goods and services. If this is the price of doing business in the Government marketplace, so be it. But let's not fool ourselves.

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