Concerns over acquisition prove to be long-lived

Agency leaders identify the same concerns today as years ago, suggesting that proposed solutions so far have not worked.

Cover of report balancing act

After a decade, the same worries about acquisition workforce top the list of concerns in the latest Acquisition Policy Survey, a joint project of the Professional Services Council and Grant Thornton.

Government acquisition officials continue to identify workforce resources, the capabilities of employees and employee training and development as the top concerns in federal acquisition, according to a new survey released Dec. 17.

Those trouble spots have topped the list since the first such survey 10 years ago. That suggests “that whatever you’ve been doing in the interim to try to address the problems they raised 10 years ago isn’t working,” said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.

PSC and Grant Thornton conduct the Acquisition Policy Survey every two years to examine what is happening in the federal acquisition community. For the 2012 survey, they spoke with more than 40 senior federal officials in the acquisition field about the state of acquisition today. The survey has found that the problems managers face have remained consistent over the years.

“Given the centrality of the acquisition workforce to the execution of the government’s missions, solving these challenges should be a high priority for appointed and elected officials,” the report reads.

Almost three-quarters of the respondents indicated that workforce challenges have worsened over the last two years. The reasons mainly stem from workforce numbers and the looming budget concerns, even beyond sequestration. Despite these concerns, 70 percent of respondents said the demand for acquisition work has increased since 2010. As for the resources to do the work, 37 percent they have remained the same, while a third said the resources have decreased and a third said they have increased.

“This should be a big red flag,” Soloway said.

Among the specifics, the fear of a major exodus of the most experienced acquisition officials is no longer a fear, but it is happening now.

“We no longer are recognizing the coming retirement, but we’re seeing the retirement,” said Phil Kangas, principal of Grant Thornton’s global public sector.

Thus, the government is imbalanced toward a more junior force that lacks the experience of senior employees. And as the retirees leave, he said there are fewer opportunities for mentoring.

This ripples into other areas. The employees are weak in purchasing fast-moving and technical IT and also their negotiating skills. In the survey, 85 percent of respondents said IT purchasing was extremely important for employees but only 25 percent said the workforce was well-trained to do it.

Additionally, the younger workforce shies away from risk-taking but falls back on a buying philosophy that is not flexible and agile, Kangas said. They are even avoiding innovative approaches to procurement out of fear for the overseers, such as Congress and auditors. By a margin of 10 to 1, respondents identified acquisition strategy development as a significant workforce weakness.

The concern is not with oversight in itself, experts said, but with “non-value-add” oversight requirements. A large majority of respondents say that oversight from various overseers, like Congress and inspectors general, have increased since 2010. They said they have received increases the most from the Office of Management and Budget.

Alan Chvotkin, PSC’s executive vice president and counsel, said officials need to address the “growing compliance regime where it’s not adding value to the acquisition system. And not only adding value, but detracting from the ability of the acquisition workforce to accomplish their core responsibilities.”

Soloway said past officials have said they want employees taking innovative acquisition approaches without fear of being fired if it goes awry.

“We need to find a way to inculcate [new attitudes] in not only words, but in the actions in how we build and support the acquisition community,” Soloway said.

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