The changing face of acquisition

OFPP finalizing interagency contracting guidance, focusing on workforce issues

Government contracting continues to attract a lot of attention ' even from presidential candidates ' as numerous issues converge and put stress on the system. The federal acquisition workforce, already stretched thin by a surge in contracting dollars, is bracing for a wave of expected retirements in the next five years. Critics say the acquisition system needs new ideas and leadership, and recent attempts to address the problems, such as legislation to increase procurement oversight, are a small part of the overall solution.

Federal Computer Week talked with Paul Denett, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, on July 31 to get his opinion on the state of contracting and the administration's efforts to improve it.

FCW: Recently, in testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, David Walker, Comptroller General, said officials should re-evaluate the definition of 'inherently governmental' to make sure that private industry isn't reaching over the line. Did you ever have any concerns about that?
Denett: I don't believe we need to tinker with the definition. I do believe we have to work hard, as we do continuously, at improving contract areas such as clear requirements' definition. We really have to do a good job of [defining] what exactly is it that we're buying; having fair and open competition amongst contractors to provide proposals on how to meet that clearly defined definition; and then, making sure we have adequate resources to manage the contracts once the winner is picked.

Doing those three things is what causes good contracting and good results. Any one of those three that gets diminished in any way causes problems. It's one of those pay me now or pay me later [situations]. And we'd rather invest the time up front, do a good job, and manage this.

[The] Homeland Security [Department] and other [agencies] are working very hard to hire the additional resources they need so they can manage their contract program better. I'm pleased to report they're having good success. They have hundreds of additional contracting personnel that they didn't have a short while ago. The caliber of [the new employees] is good. We're working hard to see that they get adequate training. We think that's the answer to sound contracts: adequate staff, well trained, and doing the three elements that I already described.

People are forecasting a huge retirement increase, despite employees working past the time they are eligible to retire.
Denett: You're not getting personal now, are you?

FCW: No, not at all.
To keep people in the acquisition workforce, what should agencies do to avoid getting caught in a massive retirement?

Denett: They have to reach out. There is a limited talent pool, and they have a great story to tell. I think the advantage the government has over private industry is our mission. It is incumbent upon all of the departments when they are doing recruiting to get senior managers involved and to make potential candidates keenly aware of the immense opportunities that the federal service provides, opportunities to work on huge programs that impact on the country and [offer] something they can feel good about at the end of the day.

I've been to more than one job fair, but I'll share one story with you. There were literally hundreds of booths. The longest line was at the State Department. These bright college graduates thought, 'Oh good, overseas assignment ' that is exotic and sexy.'

I went over and actually talked to some of the people and then brought them over to our department. I was in Interior at the time. I showed them a slide show of the Grand Canyon and a lot of the national parks and the gems that we have there; brought in some top political leadership to explain how, in acquisition, they would immediately get involved with a lot of these exciting programs. As a result of that, we were able to attract some of these people away from the long State Department line. Many of them chose acquisition and today are in acquisition.

I think you can't send a junior-graded [human resources] person to carry the entire weight of attracting the right number from the talent pool. You have to involve some more of your senior managers. You have to take advantage of the vast programs that public service offers. They're unparalleled. Private industry can't match them. So it's up to us to do a good job of making people aware and selling that.

FCW: How do you think Congress is reacting to some of these concerns with the acquisition workforce?
Denett: Six months ago, everybody was saying the acquisition workforce was way down; dollars were way up. Dollars are up, but the truth is the acquisition workforce is up. So I've noticed in the [news] articles I've been reading lately have tempered this.

Now, they say, the workforce is at least moderated or gone up slightly, or hasn't lost, whereas before we were told that the acquisition workforce in recent years had gone down dramatically. And that's not so. The numbers have gone up about 1,000. We expect those to continue to go up. I've told Homeland Security and other key departments, 'Don't wait. You've got the money; you've got the vacancies. Go ahead and fill those vacancies now.' They're in the process of doing that.

We're also finishing our skills assessment'so we can concentrate our training dollars where we need them. That also helps [agencies] make sure they hire the right people. They may have to slightly alter who they're recruiting, based on what they learn from the survey. We're excited about replenishing our ranks, increasing our numbers so that we can meet the challenges of tomorrow to handle this increased workload of having more dollars spent.

When you think of the dollars, it takes more energy for a contracting person to do a brand new contract than it does for them to place an order against an existing schedule. So sometimes, when we say, 'Oh my goodness, the dollars are up,' you have to dissect that a little and see what portion of those dollars is in new contracts, which is placing orders against existing contracts. You have to look below the surface to have a better handle and let individual chiefs of contracting activities, help them figure out exactly how many contracting personnel they need.

The more complex, the more new territory they're tackling, the more labor intensive that is, [all that] impacts the number of contracting officers and specialists.

What is the state of interagency contracts, in your view?
Denett: The state is everybody is using them more. The numbers are up. More dollars are being spent through these various vehicles, be they [governmentwide acquisition contracts] or agencywide contracts, or even agency-specific ones. It's important that we get out some guidance to everybody. My staff provided me a draft just this week on interagency contracting. They are working diligently on putting that in final form.

Obviously, departments [such as] Interior with GovWorks, [the General Services Administration] and others that are doing acquisition services for other departments, are big stakeholders in putting out roles and responsibilities. We have to make it clear who is responsible for what. You can't have a procurement office not take a look at what the source of funds are, and assure themselves that everything is appropriate before they go out and provide this service.

I think we have to do an improved job of defining roles and responsibilities so we don't get caught in a situation where the requesting agency thinks the acquiring agency is going to take care of it, and the acquiring agency thinks the requirements agency was taking care of it.

Considering these interagency contracts, do you think GSA has a new role in this environment?
Denett: Every department from time to time has'to look to alternate sources to assist them in taking care of their acquisition needs. I believe GSA fills that niche. I think every department has to look and see what their workforce can take care of, and look at what parts GSA can assist them in. GSA has to work hard, when they get that business, to do an outstanding job so that word will spread. Departments will continue to use them and even increase the usage of GSA as they have success stories under their belt.

I think of the word niche as small and very narrow. Do you think that GSA's role is getting smaller?
Denett: I wish I had not used the word niche. By niche, I mean overflow. They serve a major function to take care of a wide range of procurement. Some offices don't have [information technology] expertise. GSA does. So any time there is a specialty or a large item that they're not used to buying, GSA is used to buying it. They should be a premier provider for people for a wide range of things, not limited to a niche.

So keeping its same role, GSA will have a tough road and a lot of competition.
Denett: They do have competition, but like I say, [GSA Administrator Lurita Doan] hired good people. They have good products. I recommend that people give them opportunities to provide service to them. That's all they want is just an opportunity to show that they can deliver.


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