By Steve Kelman

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The Lectern: VA shows the way on acquisition training

I participated in a panel at the recent National Contract Management Association World Congress presenting the Department of Veterans Affairs newly opened Acquisition Academy, which is through most of the first year of its first class of contracting interns. I had visited, and blogged about, the Acquisition Academy last fall. After the panel, which featured the class’ two elected leaders – class president Paschal Dawson and class vice-president Selena Robinson -- I am even more impressed.

The internship is a three-year program where the first year is heavy on training (while giving interns field experience awarding contracts). As I noted after my visit in the fall, the class of 30 or so has no brand-new college grads – all the interns have work experience, generally in business-related areas, often in the private sector. Many are either veterans themselves or have families in the military, so the level of mission commitment is high – a good start for work as a contracting professional.

A key feature of the training is that students are educated in business skills such as negotiation and market research, as well as general management and leadership skills including team-building and public speaking. They learn the Federal Acquisition Regulation, but this is not the centerpiece of their training, as it traditionally was in entry-level training for contracting officials in the government. The reason I was on the panel is that they wanted me to give a bit of perspective on the evolution of the role of the contracting official from regulation-weenie to trusted business advisor.

It was fun listening to the two interns discuss how they had each recently awarded their first contracts, in both cases for medical equipment. They noted that the first thing they did was to learn more about the piece of equipment, what it did, and how it was sold, so they could buy more intelligently. They also fielded adeptly a question from a senior VA contracting official in the audience about how they would deal with “old salt” managers they might come to work for who would resist doing business in the new ways the interns had learned. Both said they would carefully avoid acting like, or thinking like, “know-it’all’s,” and that they would hope to get permission to try out new approaches and show their managers, by the results, that these could work.

A lot of people have been noting – although the road from word to deed is still a long one – that we need more bodies in the contracting (and the broader acquisition) workforce. This is very high up on the list of priorities for just about all experts, as well as the harried practitioners out there trying to award and (hopefully) manage the fire hose of contract actions coming their way.

However, just hiring, even if it’s a necessary start, isn’t enough. We need to retain them (by giving them interesting jobs and reducing the demoralizing second-guessing and harping that often parades under the proud word “oversight”). And we need to train them as business advisors and not just regulation experts, so they can maximize the value their efforts bring their agencies and taxpayers.

Hats off to the VA for showing the way on the second front. The morning after the breakout panel, Frank Anderson, Director of the Defense Acquisition University and thus the big kid on the block of government acquisition training, specifically mentioned at a plenary session that the approach at the VA Acquisition Academy had a lot to teach the rest of the government. Quite a compliment.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 14, 2009 at 12:08 PM


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