Feds seek the art of negotiation

Policy-makers now have data to use in addressing acquisition workforce gaps

Today's contracting officer

A report on the 2007 Contracting Workforce Competencies Survey offers a composite profile of today’s federal contracting officer, and it compares that profile with the typical federal acquisition employee described in the Federal Acquisition Institute’s Fiscal 2006 Annual Report on the Federal Acquisition Workforce. The two profiles are similar.

2007 contracting competencies survey:

Age: 51 to 55 years old

Gender: Female

Pay level/job series: General Schedule 12 and 13, 1102 job series

Supervisory role: No

Education: 70 percent have a bachelor’s or higher-level degree

Retirement trend: 51 percent of contracting officers will be eligible to retire in 10 years.

FAI’s annual federal acquisition workforce report

Age: 46 to 47 years old

Gender: Female

Pay level/job series: GS-12, 1101 job series

Supervisory role: No

Education: 71 percent have a bachelor’s or higher-level degree

Retirement trend: 50 percent of contracting officers will be eligible to retire in 10 years.

The 2007 contracting competencies survey also found the average contracting officer has:

  • More than 20 years of federal government experience.

  • 11 to 20 years of federal contracting experience.

  • One to three years of private-sector contracting experience.

Source: 2007 Contracting Workforce Competencies Survey

Contracting officers provided a snapshot view of their skills in a new survey that gives policy-makers insights into the strengths and weaknesses of the federal acquisition workforce.

 Federal contracting officers and specialists, who made up 80 percent of the survey respondents, said they need more training in three areas that affect their ability to make good deals for the government: the art of negotiation, strategic planning and contract dispute resolution.

The governmentwide 2007 Contracting Workforce Competencies Survey found that 42.9 percent of more than 5,400 employees who took the survey spend moderate or extensive amounts of time negotiating with contractors on the cost, price, terms and conditions of contracts. It found that 40.7 percent of the acquisition workforce spends a moderate or extensive amount of time creating negotiation strategies and developing plans for getting the best value for the government. Contracting officers said they feel a need to be better skilled at resolving contracting disputes.

The survey also found 58.7 percent of contracting officers spend a moderate or extensive amount of time selecting an acquisition method.

Officials at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the Federal Acquisition Institute and the Office of Personnel Management, which sponsored the survey, said they plan to use its results to address workforce needs and fill gaps in skills that the government requires.

Robert Burton, deputy administrator at OFPP, said responding to the survey findings is critical because expert contracting officers are essential for effective government. “They’re not just paper-pushers.”

Many people think contract dispute resolutions are left to acquisition attorneys to manage, and they don’t realize the role that contracting officers play, Burton said. Contracting officials work with attorneys in resolving those disputes.

The survey found that almost half the workforce spends much of its time analyzing costs, establishing prenegotiation positions on price and helping agencies understand contract proposals. Contracting officials said they need more help with new types of acquisition strategies, in terms of defining and managing requirements, and in using metrics.

Federal contracting is maturing, and officials need better training in each of those areas, Burton said. The government isn’t simply basing contract awards on the lowest bid price, particularly with the push for performance-based acquisition. “This survey clearly shows that today these skills are more important than ever before.”

The survey also confirmed something that policy-makers already knew. As expected, 56.9 percent of respondents said they spend a considerable amount of time analyzing requirements, and 54.6 percent said they spend a moderate or extensive amount of time on project management.

Burton said OFPP has initiatives for contracting officers and program managers to work together on projects. Program managers should have a major role in the acquisition process, he added. They can help contracting officers gain a better understanding of a project and define contract requirements more clearly and effectively.

“It sounds so simple, but it’s not being done,” Burton said.

Joe Patterson, public relations manager at the Project Management Institute, said program managers often have in-depth insight on one large program, while contracting officers are involved in many different programs. Patterson said pairing the two would help both sides.

The survey results reinforced concerns that many officials have about a wave of retirements among acquisition officials. It found that 51 percent of contracting officers or specialists will be eligible to retire in the next 10 years. Contracting officers are typically 51 to 55 years old.

Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, sa d the survey results confirm what many officials already knew.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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