How to fix the Pentagon's acquisition workforce problems in one week

Section 809 Panel Chair David Drabkin and Commissioner N. Ross Thompson III explained how their latest report on streamlining acquisition could help the DOD with workforce woes.

The Pentagon (Photo by Ivan Cholakov / Shutterstock)

The Section 809 Panel, established to find ways to streamline and improve the defense acquisition process, has advocated for drastic changes, primarily by empowering acquisition leaders to make buying and hiring decisions and boosting funding to train civilian acquisition workers, according to its latest report.

FCW talked with Section 809 Panel Chair David Drabkin and Commissioner and Ret. Army Lt. Gen. N. Ross Thompson III about the panel’s June 28 report, a second of three volumes on streamlining acquisition regulations, to get their thoughts on how successful the recommendations would be if adopted.

The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

FCW: How do existing acquisition hiring authorities fail to address critical skill gaps through the hiring process? What are the gaps?

THOMPSON: One of the areas we knew we needed to work on was the acquisition workforce, roughly 150,000 in the Defense Department today. It’s one of the most professional workforces in the Department because of the certification and development requirements that are necessary to move from position to position.

But when we looked at the process of hiring new members to the acquisition workforce, it’s very cumbersome, and there’s really too many authorities out there. There are 44 different hiring authorities you can use to bring somebody into the acquisition workforce: Five of them are applicable for just the DOD acquisition workforce, 15 are broader DOD authorities that the acquisition workforce could be hired under and 24 apply to the federal government at large.

What we found is hiring managers -- the supervisors and the leaders in the DOD acquisition organizations, whether that be in a program executive office or a service materiel command -- often default back to the competitive hiring process that is really run under the tutelage of the Office of Personnel Management ... which is just too complicated.

FCW: What has the effect been on acquisition on the IT, technology side?

THOMPSON: If you talk to the services, or agencies in DOD, this is a very complicated world, and the level of technology change is unprecedented. And the Defense Department, just like everybody else, is in the competition for the best people in some very technical areas. There are gaps in skills there, but the agencies manage to fill those gaps. And if you want to be in competition for the best talent, you’ve got to be able to offer  a position that matches applicant's skills quickly. You can’t take 100 days or 180 days because people are not going to wait.

And that’s part of what this consolidation is trying to get to, to speed up the overall process. Find the right people that have the skills that you need, bring them in quickly and not get mired in a process that’s way too long.

FCW: But are these changes easy? Which would Congress or DOD be most agreeable to adopt or change?

THOMPSON: For DOD, if these recommendations make sense. DOD could put out a policy memo in a week that said, "OK acquisition workforce and HR community, these are the only hiring authorities we will use for the acquisition workforce."

Now there are some changes that require legislation, for example the sunsetting dates and caps on the authorities, and Congress would need to sign off on that. But DOD could issue a policy memo and start to use that limited number of hiring authorities and speed up the process if they wanted to.

FCW: The report calls out how, when it comes to commercial procurement, the proper authorities exist but aren’t used. Why is that, and how does DOD rectify that?

DRABKIN: I think what we’ve observed both in volume one and volume two is that the department has had difficulty implementing the direction Congress gave it in the Federal Acquisition Streamlining Act of 1994 to buy commercial items. And so we have been working methodically in developing our report to propose ways to further simplify how the department implements direction Congress gave it in 1994: changing the definition of a commercial item, separating commercial services from products, eliminating the term COTS (commercial off the shelf). And now in volume two, we’re looking at simplifying acquisition procedures. And principally you will find in [Federal Acquisition Regulation] part 12 where the directions for commercial items generally exists, the procedures to be used aren’t there, they’re in another part of the FAR, in part 13. So we recommend those simplified acquisition procedures be moved into FAR part 12.

The absence of the procedures in FAR part 12 tempt buyers to use more complicated procedures in FAR part 15 or what we commonly refer to as formal source selection.

FCW: Would these changes do enough to speed up the acquisition process to better keep pace with commercial tech? How?

DRABKIN: Yes, absolutely. It would speed up the process and it will eliminate some of the barriers that the companies we spoke to identified, causing them to not do business with us at all.... We want to be able to buy the same things that the Chinese and ISIS can buy with a check, cash, or credit card.

FCW: What would the process look like post-streamlining? Would it still take years?

DRABKIN: No commercial buy should take years, so you start from that. And then it really depends on the market segments you’re in. For things that are commercial products -- services are a little more complicated -- you should be able to buy those things in a matter of weeks, not months. In other cases, it may be necessary, like with a commercial service, it may take a little longer because you're tailoring that service to a specific need the government has.

THOMPSON: It’s the complication of doing a source selection for a commercial item...creating more formality and paper. If we pick the wrong procedures to make a buy … we ask for lots of data not necessary to make the right decision.

FCW: How important is the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund to acquisition reform and why?

Thompson: Our research and our personal experience have taught us that it’s critically important. DAWDF has been around since 2008, it’s a flexible authority Congress gave to the Defense Department. It allows the services and defense components to do the innovative things like find the right people and bring them into the government and do the professional development that is necessary. I would argue that without DAWDF, you wouldn’t have the skillset we've got in the acquisition workforce today.

As a former service programmer for the Army, I’ll tell you this honestly, military training generally gets the funding that it needs. Most of the acquisition workforce are DOD civilians, and they don’t get the money that they need to be the professional workforce. DAWDF has allowed the services and the defense agencies to do what was necessary, to raise the skill level, and bring in the right people.

Our recommendation is that DAWDF be a multiyear fund and managed as such. Because if it’s one-year money, then it becomes subject to continuing resolutions when budgets don’t get passed on time. And when you’re dealing with people, you can't tell a bright, young college student, "Hey I’m going to use the DAWDF to pay back part of your student loan," but because it’s subject to continuing resolution, that payment is delayed months. That’s not a good way to manage and it’s often proven itself so. Multiyear money allows you to bridge the gap in between fiscal years when continuing resolutions come into play.

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