Experts: Acquisition jobs offer few incentives

Federal contracting careers losing appeal

Federal acquisition employees have no good reason to continue their careers in government procurement, a panel of experts said May 19.

Contracting specialists have been relegated to ordinary positions at agencies after once being held in high esteem, said Steve Kempf, assistant commissioner of acquisition management at the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service.

“I think we’ve lowered them in the food chain,” said Kempf, a career acquisition employee. When Kempf entered the field two decades ago, contracting officers were revered and had their own offices. Today, they’ve been downgraded to cubicles, he said.

His point was an underlying theme of a discussion among eight government acquisition experts hosted by the congressional Smart Contracting Caucus. They said the acquisition community is being criticized by Congress and the news media, which pounce on mistakes regardless of whether they are fraud or honest errors.

“Contracting officers get beat down a lot,” Kempf said, adding that one mistake could end a career.

“Frankly, they have every reason to fear for their careers,” said Steve Schooner, an associate law professor and co-director of the Government Procurement Law Program at George Washington University.

Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project on Government Oversight, said oversight and accountability aren’t punishment. However, overseers inside and outside government need to determine when an error is fraud or an honest mistake.

Despite the fear of making a career-ending error, contracting officers today focus on accomplishing as much as possible in a short time, the experts said.

“Their incentive is volume,” said John Needham, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office.

Government spending has increased dramatically in recent years — nearly doubling since 2000 — and the size of the overall workforce has increased only minimally. The workload pressures are stressful for acquisition employees. They hope they don’t make a major mistake, but they don’t have time to check all the details of each acquisition, experts said.

There are few other incentives for acquisition employees to stay with the government. The private sector can offer them more money and benefits. Furthermore, the government retirement system creates incentives for employees to leave for the private sector, said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), a caucus member and ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Experts also said it takes months to get a job with the government because of its broken hiring system.

Overall, the field has lost its luster because it’s now an administrative job, the panelists said.

Members of the younger generation recognize that and are not attracted to the acquisition field. Schooner said the descriptions of government openings on USAJobs.gov are generic and boring. “The jobs just don’t smell good,” he said.

About the Author

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

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