OFPP chief gets the message: Time to rebuild the acquisition workforce

A larger, better-trained acquisition workforce is key to President Obama's procurement reform plans

In his 2009 procurement reform memo, President Barack Obama drew attention to the state of the acquisition workforce. Accordingly, Daniel Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, has made strengthening that workforce one of his top priorities.

Experts agree that reform efforts and agencies' acquisition activities won't go well unless the government has the right number of highly skilled acquisition employees. That workforce has shrunk since the 1990s, and though it has begun to grow again to match demands, it is not keeping pace with the government's procurement spending.

Gordon spent nearly 20 years at the Government Accountability Office, most recently as acting general counsel. He was confirmed as OFPP administrator in November 2009, so he's still relatively new to the job. He said he's learning by listening. He has met with acquisition employees on the front lines, industry and union groups, and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

He spoke recently with Senior Editor Matthew Weigelt about what he has learned and his strategies for building a skilled, motivated workforce.

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FCW: When you talk to the contracting employees on the front lines, what do they say?

Daniel Gordon: What I've heard from contracting officers [is], No. 1, huge appreciation that they feel their concerns are being listened to by [the Office of Management and Budget].

No. 2 [is] optimism about the administration's commitment to build up the acquisition workforce. I've got to tell you, I think that has a morale component. It's not only a question of more dollars, it's also a question of more attention.

No. 3...is going be somewhat more mixed than the first two. The first two, if you will, are happy messages. But a somewhat more mixed message is about the quality of training. Some of the frontline people have told me about training they find very helpful. It's usually in the context of training that is targeted, focused and relatively short. Where I've heard complaints...is [about] training that feels unconnected to their work.

FCW: One of your highest priorities is building the acquisition workforce. Besides training, what are you working on?

Gordon: It's far more than just training. As I've said before, the hiring is extremely important. The hiring has several components. One component is the president's budget. If you recall, it includes $133 million for the civilian agencies.

Secondly, hiring is important in terms of taking advantage and encouraging agencies to take advantage of hiring authorities. That means direct hiring authority when it's available.

It also involves the intern program. We have an intern program at two levels. The one that is more established is at the entry level. But we have now also begun to work on a second level, which I think is equally important, and that's the midcareer.

Partly because of the impending retirements, the federal government will benefit enormously if we can hire people with some experience in the private sector into the government. They don't need to be entry-level people. If they bring relevant private-sector experience, we want to be able to smooth the path to federal employment.

FCW: What challenges will the government face as its acquisition workforce grows?

Gordon: A challenge that we are going to face is the management challenge. When we bring new people on — whether it is at the midcareer level or at the entry level — we need to be sure that we are training them well and that we are managing them well. A major challenge is that we are going to [need to] help them develop professionally.

One of the things I'm very sensitive to from my GAO background is that human capital side of things. GAO has issued report after report about the human capital challenges. I was the manager of a 170-person office in the Office of the General Counsel at GAO. I was very involved and committed to diversity in recruitment, to successful recruitment, to training, to reward and to retention.

FCW: Do you have any advice for managers?

Gordon: When you bring people on board, the "on-boarding" process is very important. In my experience, the first day that they're federal employees, they should have positive recollections. They should come to our office with a computer that functions, with a phone that works, with all they need by way of office supplies handy. They should have someone who greets them and takes them to lunch the first day. The first day is a really important experience for people, and they risk remembering it for 30 years thereafter.

You need to be certain they get enough training at the right time. Incidentally...one of the keys, besides being targeted, is that it be timely. If you give people training too early, you are wasting their time. If you give it to them too late, it's not going to be useful.

Maybe because of my background as a high school teacher before I went to law school, I care about the way we teach and the effectiveness of our teaching. So, it’s definitely an area where I am very committed to improving. This is not an area where we can sit on our laurels.

One of the nice things I heard recently in a visit up to the [Veterans Affairs Department] Acquisition Academy in Frederick, Md., was from interns there. They said how valuable it is that the VA has structured their training so that the interns spend a certain amount of time in the classroom and then actually go into the VA acquisition shop so they work with real issues and then go back into the classroom. That strikes me…as a particularly useful kind of training.

FCW: What do you find so interesting about acquisition?

Gordon: There are people who really view themselves as part of an acquisition community, and I am definitely one of those people. Acquisition is an interesting intersection of public policy issues [and] legal issues. Even within the public policy issues, it’s an interesting intersection between the focus on efficiency and best value but always taking into account social and economic policies, such as small-business-related issues. So, it’s an interesting area that combines various other national priorities.

My hunch, though, is that most people in the acquisition community get into that world by chance, but many people who get into that world then find it very interesting. Not everyone. I have a very good friend who got into acquisition partly because I told her how interesting I thought it was, and this was in the area of law. And she, about a year and half later, told me she is looking for other work because she hated it. I found it hard to understand because I find it fascinating, but there are people who don’t find it as interesting as acquisition people do.

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