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By Steve Kelman

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Listening to some of the smartest government procurement people around

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It is a real pleasure for me to sit on the Board of Advisors for the Veterans Administration Acquisition Academy (VAAA), whose orientation towards teaching business skills and mission support – as well as its attention to teaching program management -- makes it a model for acquisition training efforts in the government. The board includes some very distinguished names in federal contracting, most (though not all) now retired from the government yet still very active. One of the things I get out of our occasional meetings is an opportunity to listen to what’s on the minds of some of the best minds in the field.

We spent most of the last meeting discussing “what is hot” and “what should be keeping you awake at night.” Here’s a report on some of what came out of the discussion:

  1. We spoke a fair bit about the idea of transferring more big IT acquisition projects to a few “centers of excellence.” Generally, the sentiment in the room was for caution about this idea. While this might be a good plan for small agencies who do only very occasional IT projects, the group worried that the more “centers of excellence” loomed as a central location for IT procurements, the more a vicious circle would be created. Agencies would have an even harder time attracting and retaining talent, with all IT talent being siphoned off to these (probably higher-graded) positions. The centers of excellence would lack agency-specific knowledge, and relationships inside the agency, that are so important for successful project management. With inside-the-agency talent drained away, this could make successful IT project management more difficult, not less.

  2. A number of people around the table thought that one of the highest priorities for training the contracting workforce was training more people to be experts in one line of business – such as IT contracting, professional services contracting, facilities contracting and so forth. Shockingly few of the government’s contracting officials are line-of-business specialists; most might be buying property management one day and website development the next. Line-of-business specialists are in a much better position to help the program customers with better knowledge of pricing, marketplace conditions and other special contracting issues.

  3. A number of participants also wanted to see a move, for ongoing training that contracting people receive, towards having a group of people at an office attend the same training at the same time. This has apparently begun happening at the Defense Acquisition University. There is evidence that, when people from the same office are trained together, the impact of the training on what actually occurs at the office increases. Although we did not discuss this, one might be able to adopt this group approach to online training, giving it a group in-office perspective to complement the individual online part.

In my next post, I will discuss some interesting thoughts that came up regarding business majors, liberal arts majors, veterans and the issue of diversity in government teams.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 03, 2014 at 6:50 AM

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Reader comments

Tue, Feb 11, 2014 Al

I haven't seen this idea expressed yet, which probably means it is a bad one, but: How would it affect the procurement system if President Obama led an initiative to convert all of DoD to a single ERP system? Or the Civilian Departments/Agencies? Or both? Would that make *actual* strategic sourcing much more practical?

Tue, Feb 4, 2014 Marsha Goodwillo No. Va.

Prof. Kelmann: sounds like an interesting discussion. But don't these issues sound like ones that are 20, 30, years old--or older? How far have we really come, if at all, to achieve more effective and more valuable (bang for buck) contracting? And why not inject the accountability issue more often. It is the kind of issue that makes govt employees sweat, yes, but what is the evidence that contracting management improvements have in fact been effective?

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