Let's make a deal

Federal Acquisition Institute

As electronic government programs and outsourcing become more common, and agencies focus on outcome rather than process, federal contracting personnel — and the people who train them — must change with the times.

"We're not just going to be technicians, we're going to be business people," said Deborah O'Neill, director of the Federal Acquisition Institute, which is part of the General Services Administration and promotes the development of the federal acquisition workforce. The institute, in cooperation with the Defense Acquisition University, is re-evaluating the skill levels of acquisition personnel and is developing seminars on lessons learned and best practices in the electronic contracting arena.

The first step to establishing the proper courses is a redesign of the contract specialist handbook, the guidebook that outlines the skills acquisition personnel must have according to the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). For years, this handbook has been the blueprint used by organizations to design training courses for acquisition personnel, but it is regarded as out-of-date.

"We're going to go through a review of that and see, is this accurately stating the requirements that contracting professionals must have as this profession is changing?" O'Neill said. The Federal Acquisition Institute and Defense Acquisition University kicked off their review of the handbook last month.

The review will help determine what new nontechnical skills are needed, such as interpersonal skills to work with program officials and market knowledge to know what is available to meet a program's technical needs. It will help ensure that the 40 hours to 80 hours that acquisition personnel are required to spend every two years learning the latest regulations and practices will be well spent.

"We're doing all kinds of things to get our people to understand what skills they need to become business managers," said Terrence Tychan, co-chairman of the Procurement Executives Council's Acquisition Workforce Committee and an official with the Department of Health and Human Services. The PEC and the Office of Federal Procurement Policy are backing the review.

The handbook review should be available in the spring for organizations to use when they design their training courses. Soon after, the two acquisition schools expect to issue new governmentwide training standards based on where the skills needs are.

"The thinking is that we, the government, set up the standards and monitor them and then we ensure that there's quality in the training that's offered and that it's equivalent, consistent," O'Neill said. Already, the acquisition schools have launched a seminar series to expose acquisition personnel to how agencies are using new technologies, such as reverse auctions.

The PEC meanwhile is developing other workforce programs, Tychan said. "This is all centered around our overall strategy to change the way the procurement community and the rest of the world think about what we do," Tychan said.

OFPP and the PEC believe that, in the future, agency contracting professionals will not rely solely on the FAR but will use other mechanisms to do their jobs, such as communications with vendors and best practices, said Maj. Garry Shafovaloff, an official with the Defense Acquisition University.

Acquisition personnel should also know how to close and make a deal, said David Drabkin, deputy associate administrator for acquisition policy at GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy. As far as knowing the FAR, "technology has replaced you in that area," Drabkin said, speaking at the Electronic Procurement conference late last month. "Your value in the future is your ability to achieve an outcome that can be measured."

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