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.

Featured

  • Cybersecurity

    DHS floats 'collective defense' model for cybersecurity

    Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen wants her department to have a more direct role in defending the private sector and critical infrastructure entities from cyberthreats.

  • Defense
    Defense Secretary James Mattis testifies at an April 12 hearing of the House Armed Services Committee.

    Mattis: Cloud deal not tailored for Amazon

    On Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis sought to quell "rumors" that the Pentagon's planned single-award cloud acquisition was designed with Amazon Web Services in mind.

  • Census
    shutterstock image

    2020 Census to include citizenship question

    The Department of Commerce is breaking with recent practice and restoring a question about respondent citizenship last used in 1950, despite being urged not to by former Census directors and outside experts.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.