Feds' procurement shortcomings a threat to industry

Bob Davis argues that the lack of a strong federal procurement workforce is not just a government problem -- and it’s time for industry to get involved in solving it.

Bob Davis of CRGT (Image courtesy of LinkedIn.)

Bob Davis says it is time for industry to get involved in solving federal procurement problems.

In 1994, I attended a lunch meeting in Washington, D.C., where the speaker, who worked for the federal government, discussed the anticipated shortage of qualified federal procurement people. The speaker expressed great concern that the development would adversely affect the government and industry, and stressed the need for professional development, certifications, expertise in managing large programs and a more robust career path, and highlighted the challenges of working in an increasingly politically charged environment.

Fast-forward to 2015: Do those concerns sound familiar?

In the past 20 years, there have been countless articles, blog posts, speeches, plans and conferences that decry this problem. Numerous senior government leaders have repeatedly sounded the alarm: The federal government does not have enough procurement employees now or in the career development pipeline to properly perform its mission. Our industry has heard the alarm bells for years, but it is not listening.

The problem will have an increasingly serious impact on our industry and, in turn, the government’s ability to serve its constituents. Proposal evaluations, contract awards and modifications are already being delayed. Incumbent contractors, of course, can game the system to their advantage -- for example, by overwhelming government procurement personnel with new inquiries, modifications and requests.

Our industry is adept at updating business development forecasts and making the next few quarters look hopeful. We keep our boards informed of the government’s procurement issues. Of course, those boards have been hearing for years how things might improve next year, but there are numerous signs that things are getting worse:

* Government procurement organizations are losing experienced and competent employees faster than they can be replaced.

* There is no long-term career path for people who work in government procurement.

* There is no standard career development, training and certification program embraced by most government agencies.

* The government is being forced to increasingly rely on contractors to augment procurement staffing, which creates long-term issues related to what activities are inherently governmental.

* There is redundancy in procurement organizations across federal agencies.

* The responsibility for solving this complex problem is spread across multiple government agencies.

* There are too many governmentwide acquisition contracts and multi-agency contracts across the federal government, which collectively create greater complexity and expense instead of increasing efficiency.

* Lowest price, technically acceptable (LPTA) has become a procurement end goal because of budgetary pressure, instead of being a tool to improve the government’s performance.

The government will be better able to address myriad procurement-related problems by having a professional workforce that is centrally educated with standard certifications. A governmentwide development and certification program that covers topics such as management of procurement employees and operations, government contractors, LPTA application, and large-scale programs is a fundamental element of the solution. The application and impact of new technology and tools (e.g., cloud, mobility, cybersecurity and analytics) should be included, too.

Pieces of the solution exist now. Federal procurement best practices, processes and tools have been identified. High-quality training programs are in place. Various agencies have valuable ideas, tools and expertise. But how do we move forward?

Many people know procurement policies and regulations far better than I, but I do know that a function critical to the success of our industry and the government’s well-being is broken and has been broken for decades. We must come together to address this expanding crisis. It is time for our industry to step up and join this fight.

I recommend gathering the lead agencies with a direct interest in professional government procurement and processes, a select group of congressional staffers, association leaders, federal procurement experts and senior industry managers in Washington in April for a seven-hour structured program to identify:

1. The current scope of the problem.

2. How the existing system affects stakeholders, including industry.

3. What government programs and resources exist that can help solve the problem.

4. What expertise industry has that is pertinent to solving the problem.

5. What Federal Acquisition Regulation issues and challenges must be addressed.

6. What new legislation must be created and passed.

Ideally, an industry association that has government participation would lead the activities after the meeting. Subcommittees on relevant topics -- for example, Career Development and Education, Recruiting and Retention, Compensation, Regulatory Obstacles, New Legislation, GWAC/MAC Simplification, Best Practices, and Technology and Tools -- should be established with joint industry and government participation. The members would meet every other month and report their progress to the larger group every six months.

A primary objective of the meeting would be to develop a vision and key objectives to address this industry, market and workforce crisis by 2020, often referred to as Procurement 2020. It will take that long to get the key players and legislators on the same page, but we must be guided by a vision of what our improved federal procurement system could look like in 2020.

A friend told me he did not believe that certain government agencies would cooperate in a program of this nature. I hope he is wrong.

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