Editorial: Acquisition on the agenda

The federal government will pay a price for not shoring up its acquisition workforce.

No one expects the next administration to give a lot of thought to fixing problems with the government acquisition workforce during its first 100 days. It’s probably a safe bet that most members of the transition team aren’t even aware that problems exist.

That’s understandable. No one is arguing that government procurements will grind to a halt if the new president doesn’t enact reforms immediately. Nor can anyone point to a single tell-tale failure that highlights the cost of having an acquisition workforce that everyone agrees is overworked and undertrained.

Still, procurement experts say the federal government will pay the price for not taking action.

One potential cost is the increased likelihood of award protests. Poorly written or badly managed solicitations often create good opportunities — if not good cause — for losing bidders to challenge award decisions. Such tactics can result in costly delays of important programs.

Experts are more worried than ever, now that the Government Accountability Office has the authority to handle protests against $10 million-plus task orders awarded through indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contracts. This change is understandably generating a fair amount of anxiety among contracting officers who worry about doing anything that might result in a protest.

However, protests are not the only concern, nor the most costly. Government and industry officials, in addition to GAO auditors, seem to agree that, more often than not, program failures are at least partially because of problems with contract requirements.

This issue came up repeatedly last month as members of FCW’s staff worked on an article about the debate over cost-plus and fixed-price contracting. Government acquisition employees and outside experts asserted that any effort to improve the cost-effectiveness of government contracts must begin by training contracting officers to develop clearer requirements.

But the problem with contract requirements is in itself a symptom of an overwhelmed workforce. As FCW noted earlier this year, federal data shows that the acquisition workforce has grown just 6 percent since 2000 (28,434 contracting officers versus 26,751). Meanwhile, federal spending on contracting more than doubled (from $209 billion to $430 billion).

Those numbers are worth repeating, and career feds working with the new transition team should bring them up at the first available opportunity and every other opportunity after that. The acquisition workforce needs to be high on the agenda. 

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