Workplace Management

A toxic work environment threatens acquisition personnel gains

troubled man

Seasoned acquisition professionals say they feel frustrated by bureaucracy and lack decision-making power. (Photo: iStock).

What is the current status of the federal acquisition workforce? Have the actions taken over the past four years helped to address the pressures caused by insufficient personnel and an increased workload? What are the current stress points?

To explore these and other questions, the Procurement Round Table, a nonprofit organization of former senior leaders in federal acquisition, recently convened an informal discussion with a number of current executives from multiple federal agencies. This is the first of two columns in which we summarize some of the key points from that discussion.

The conversation was spirited, and there were some rays of hope, particularly the hiring of additional contracting specialists — though there are agencies that have done little hiring. One participant welcomed the increase in the acquisition workforce. And it’s not just numbers. Another executive said, “The government has hired more super competent people as interns in the last three years than it has in the prior 20 years.”

Still, much of the news was disheartening. Many participants said the current challenges are not related to workload, which suggests that recent efforts to increase the workforce are making a positive difference. Rather, the biggest concern was the toxic work environment and the fear that it will drive talented new employees away. One executive talked about how poorly interns are supervised, saying they complain that they “are not allowed to use their brains, to use what they have been taught.”

But the problems go far beyond internships. Seasoned professionals feel as though they are under siege. As one participant put it, “Acquisition people cannot make decisions and are frustrated at having to send their work through so many layers of review. Warranted contracting officers cannot get the simplest tasks done and are not allowed to make simple decisions.”

According to participants, oversight bodies are contributing to the poisoned work environment. One person said the Government Accountability Office and inspector general “have been very aggressive. The GAO and the IG go to the Hill if agencies do not follow them exactly. It is a very confrontational time right now.” Another said, “In its reports, the [Defense Department] IG makes comments like ‘We need to hold the contracting officer accountable.’ These contracting officers are getting named and sometimes have to come in and testify. Rarely has contracting been held to this standard, held accountable in ways that it should not be.” It was discouraging to hear the lesson one person drew from the experience: “Nothing happens to you if you do nothing.”

We are succeeding in recruiting and training talented people to tackle complex acquisition challenges, but we are then putting them in an environment that drives them toward risk avoidance and a focus on mere compliance. One senior official said, “We tell contracting officers to use their brains, but also that if they make a mistake, they are toast.” Another participant expressed the view that “it used to be a different environment, one [that cut down on] regulation. Now the environment is risk-averse, and everyone is afraid of being reported to the IG.”

Creating a stimulating and rewarding work environment for talented professionals is the key to strengthening the government’s acquisition practices and ensuring that it achieves the outcomes desired for a reasonable cost. After our discussion, we believe we need to raise awareness about the need to find a better balance between oversight — as important and necessary as it is — and promoting the freedom to use good judgment. That flexibility is essential for professionals to thrive and find creative solutions to complex challenges.

Anne Reed is founder of Anne Reed Consulting and former CIO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dan Gordon is associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University Law School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Al Burman is chairman of the Procurement Round Table, president of Jefferson Solutions and former administrator of OFPP.

About the Authors

Anne Reed is founder of Anne Reed Consulting and former CIO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Dan Gordon is associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University Law School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

Al Burman is chairman of the Procurement Round Table, president of Jefferson Solutions and former administrator of OFPP.

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Reader comments

Mon, Jan 28, 2013

This article is absolutely correct. The culture in contracts is to avoid risk. There is little incentive for a seasoned 1102 to take a chance and expedite a procurement. To do so, while getting kudos from technical (Prog Mgr) side of the house incurs reprimands from contracts side of the house. People want to do a good job, but in contracts, before a committee, you get ripped to shreds by your own discipline often in front of technical clients/customers. After repeated floggings, no wonder motivation is degraded so low. Re: incoming regulations? So a congressman experiences a conflict of interest, and a new regulation is distributed to the masses, to 1,000's of Contracting Officers, which adds another 2 weeks to PALT which just exasperates the Prog Mgr's anxiety over committing funds. It never ends. Re: many comments on credentials or motivation of workers, speak for your own dept. I see a lot of pompous chest beating yet continual problems (in contracts). Is it dead wood or not letting people do a job that'd like to do.

Mon, Oct 29, 2012 Robert Knauer CPCM CPPO

One last comment: Not only can the federal workforce be reduced by about 20% in size (the 20 percent deadwood). Procurement staffs can be reduced IF supervisors would set strong standards of performance, and make staffs adhere to those strong standards of work productivity. Federal personnel can be more productive, but the supervisors and political leaders need to provide the tools, training, and environment to enable staffs to succeed. Many offices have certain people that can't punch their way out of a paper bag, if challenged. Don't say you can't get rid of those drones. In my 32 years I helped weed out over 145 employees...GONE.

Thu, Oct 25, 2012 Robert Knauer CPPO CPCM

I retired as a GS14, frustrated after seeing lesser qualified people promoted to GS15 because of color, and or heritage-a fact, often echoed softly by many very intelligent personnel in DC. Sadly, nothing will improve until such time as poor supervisors (I was lucky in that I had some good ones), 1102 drones are gotten rid of from CS. As a supervisor, and senior CO, I always enjoyed work moving swiftly, contracts being awarded in record time, and challenging my assistants to use their brains. I demanded they think outside-the-box, and gave them free-reign to do as needed to get tasks accomplished. I found it worked wonderfully. Maybe some of the older, less-wise, 1102s and Program Managers should take heed and try to break out of the barn once in a while- they might find it difficult at first, but once a light-bulb goes seldom goes off. Lastly, I never took a job without my superiors knowing it would be MY WAY, and if they weren't accepting of that, I would not take the position. Successful senior leadership was successful because they did hire can-do types, not because they are "chicken ____."

Thu, Oct 25, 2012

What did Dan Gordon do about this when he was OFPP Administrator?

Thu, Oct 25, 2012 Peter G. Tuttle, CPCM

The environment for Federal acquisition professionals has always been one of stress & tension, due to the sheer nature of the business. There has always been oversight, second-guessing, intense pressure, risk aversion, Congressional interest, unwielding bureaucracy, etc. Although there is not much new news here, Anne's article spotlights some important reasons why it's tough to keep acquisition professionals motivated and on the Agency payroll for long.

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