VA tries new 'corporate' acquisition

Deputy Secretary Gould is dealing with 26 percent vacancy rate in procurement staff

The Veterans Affairs Department is struggling with a 26 percent vacancy rate in its acquisition staff to oversee about $19 billion on contracts this year, Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould said today as he outlined a new "corporate" approach to the buying process.

To reverse the vacancy rate, the VA is hiring 350 procurement specialists and investing in training and certification, including with the VA Acquisition Academy in Frederick, Md., he said.

“For decades, federal civil service employees were viewed as costs. We need to view them as investments,” Gould told the VA Supplier Relationship Transformation Forum today in Arlington, Va.

“We have not done a great job of making this a career that people will think of when they get out of graduate school,” Gould said.

Due to the high rate of vacancies, federal acquisition experts are doing more work with less assistance, causing “a negative, if not toxic, work environment,” he added.

The event is part of a series of activities being conducted to support the VA’s transformation for the 21st century that includes an overhaul of the agency's acquisition structure and its supplier relationships. With a budget of $113 billion, the VA serves about 23 million veterans.

Gould said he is using a "corporate approach" to acquisition improvement that includes “open communication, vigorous debate and a willingness to dissent.” Too often, he added, vendors may fear being “blackballed” if they raise a significant problem with a government acquisition executive. But that “fear of being blamed” is a force that can hold back needed reforms, he said.

The VA wants to become more like a corporation that will “manage for results,” use enterprise approaches and align acquisition with mission outcomes, Gould said.

For example, rather than having individual hospitals purchase equipment such as Magnetic Resonance Imaging systems, which results in a hodgepodge of products, the goal might be to combine all the MRI contracts into a single enterprise contract.

“A bureaucracy like the VA can be run as successfully as the finest companies in America,” Gould said.

The VA is also using integrated product teams, and working on a strategic approach to information technology acquisitions, and the department wants to name an assistant secretary for acquisition logistics and construction. The VA is thinking about the possibility of inviting winning vendors to come in to discuss the terms of the contract and to do team building immediately after the contract award, Gould said.

With more emphasis on procuring a mix of products and services in recent years, acquisition has become more complex and collaborative, Gould said. That increases the need for metrics for measuring performance and a more comprehensive approach to managing acquisitions.

Acquisition decisions will still be distributed among a large number of executives, but there will be more guidance from a central office, he said.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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