Smaller contracting staffs rely on IT to cope

Buyouts and hiring freezes at federal agencies have reduced the procurement work force by nearly 12 percent during the past five years, forcing the remaining contracting officers to develop strategies for coping with a growing workload.

Although agencies' authority to offer workers buyouts -- a key tool in the Clinton administration's efforts to reduce the number of federal workers -- ended Dec. 30, 1997, officials expect the attrition of contracting officials to continue into the foreseeable future as fewer funds are budgeted for support functions.

Throughout the government, acquisition officers have been taking advantage of automation, as well as new contracting rules, to save time and to allow the officers to take on additional work. The growing use of purchase cards, multiple-award task-order contracts, blanket purchase agreements (BPAs) and Internet shopping are all being driven to some degree by shrinking procurement staffs, according to observers.

"I think some of the slack has been taken up by some of the tools we've gotten," said David Litman, director of acquisition and grant management with the Transportation Department, which lost 36 percent of its acquisition work force in the past few years. "In fairness, the people who are still here have picked up some of the burden, too."

"We think there was a trend already to simplify the procurement process by using these commercial-type contracts [advocated as part of acquisition reform]," said Olga Grkavac, senior vice president with the Information Technology Association of America's Systems Integration Division. "But we think the reduction in contracting personnel has accelerated" that trend.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, the number of contracting officers in the government declined 11.9 percent between September 1992 and June 1997, changing from 31,630 to 27,858 during this period.

Patrick Williams, deputy director of the National Institutes of Health's Information Technology Acquisition and Assessment Center, said NIH has lost 10 percent of its contracting work force in the last year and a half.

The Defense Department began downsizing in 1992 after Congress authorized buyouts to mitigate the effects of post-Cold War military restructuring. A year later President Clinton ordered a reduction of 252,000 workers governmentwide by the end of fiscal 1999, which Congress increased to 272,900. Last year Congress ordered DOD to eliminate up to 25,000 procurement jobs by this fall.

In 1994 and 1996, lawmakers passed two bills allowing buyouts to civilian agencies, both of which have now expired, although DOD, NASA and Agriculture Department employees remain eligible for these incentives under separate legislation. Not all the reductions are due to buyouts -- budgeted personnel ceilings and hiring freezes also have affected the work force.

At DOT, Litman said, procurement offices have turned some acquisition work over to end users through the purchase card program, which supplies credit cards that employees who are not contracting officers can use to buy small items. Also, he said, substituting oral proposals from vendors for "voluminous" written documents and using past performance to weed out unqualified contractors has helped to reduce the workload.

More and more, because of downsizing, "the person who has the need for something is also the one who acquires it," said Bill Gormley, assistant commissioner in the Federal Supply Service (FSS) Office of Acquisition, which runs the purchase card program.

Williams said the three large multiple-award programs that NIH runs have helped to ease the workload at his agency. "[They] require a lot less effort on the part of contracting staff and a lot more work on program staff," Williams said. The agency also has moved toward more fixed-price deals, which "take a lot of negotiating out of them [and] cut down on contract administration."

Litman and Williams said doing contracting "paperwork" electronically -- distributing documents on the World Wide Web and answering vendors' questions online -- also has helped contracting officers manage their larger workloads, although neither agency has fully adopted electronic commerce.

Downsizing also has invigorated the General Services Administration's multiple-award schedule program. Organizations such as the Navy and the Air Force are using the schedules as their primary contracting vehicles instead of running their own, management-intensive procurements. But diminishing staff is not the only reason agencies are using the schedules. One agency that plans to use BPAs -- the Air Force Electronic Systems Command -- reported last week that it has not lost many people in the last couple of years. But Gormley said GSA has consciously marketed the program to overburdened agencies, which are using the schedule contracts more and more to obtain BPAs and other special deals.

Gormley said these newer buying options at GSA are themselves a partial reaction to a diminished work force at his agency. FSS has lost 25 percent of its staff overall in the past five years and "there was probably a lot of room to do things more effectively."

Last fall, during the negotiation period for the current schedule contracts, vendors complained that FSS did not have enough personnel to get the contracts in place on time. Subsequently, FSS has begun hiring again, and the agency is working on other ways to streamline its operations.

The long-term impact of governmentwide cuts in acquisition personnel remains unclear. Procurement offices may say they are getting more efficient, but some worry that without authority to start hiring new employees, agencies may miss out on the opportunity to have experienced buyers pass on their knowledge before they retire.

"If we don't have new people coming in behind them, new people will eventually come in and find there isn't that experience base [from which they can learn]," DOT's Litman said.

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