The case for more acquisition training options

The Department of Veterans Affairs' Jan Frye explains the rationale behind VA's Acquisition Academy.

Jan R. Frye is the senior procurement executive at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

I couldn't be happier with the success of the Department of Veterans Affairs' Acquisition Academy, the award-winning program that develops our acquisition workforce. It’s important to remember that we created this program out of necessity.

The issue surfaced earlier this month when Steve Kelman, a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, wrote in his blog at FCW.com that the VA academy should be able to offer its services to other agencies, thereby creating competition with the Federal Acquisition Institute and Defense Acquisition University. Some readers who commented on his blog post wondered why VA decided to take this route rather than simply send employees to FAI or DAU.

I want to take the opportunity to set the record straight. Before launching the academy, we consulted with leaders at the Office of Management and Budget, the General Services Administration, FAI and DAU and shared our vision for creating a holistic learning model based on a mixture of competency-driven online and classroom courses.

Frankly, investing resources in developing and managing an academy was not our first choice. However, given the positive feedback and results, it was the right one. Our original intent was to focus exclusively on the VA acquisition workforce, but we are certainly open to serving the needs of other federal agencies. The academy still partners with FAI and DAU when it makes sense but has added courses tailored to civilian buying habits. We also have a robust program/project management curriculum.

VA's internship program is part of a long-term succession planning strategy to build quality from the ground up and retain that talent for years to come. The intern program also addresses a common governmentwide practice of prematurely promoting people into higher-level roles before they are properly seasoned. Most senior acquisition executives agree that this practice dilutes the effectiveness of the acquisition process.

Kelman is correct that competition — versus monopolies — in any sector can drive both innovation and improvement. Although GSA officials consistently object to the proliferation of services that they feel entitled to provide, we suggest they consider more flexible, customer-driven models, whether in the area of governmentwide contracts or training.

In addition to the successes at the academy, we have developed a strong acquisition career management program. In 2005, OFPP directed all agencies to appoint an acquisition veteran to manage the staffing, training and development needs of the acquisition workforce. At VA, we take this issue very seriously, and the individual we appointed to oversee those efforts has a doctorate degree, a master's degree in acquisition management and 24 years of hands-on experience in federal procurement.

In addition to raising Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting rates to the 97th percentile, the Acquisition Career Management Office has created an empirical staffing tool, business intelligence capability, online FAC-C application and warrant system, and applied learning center to objectively assess competency levels. OMB has lauded each of those tools as best practices in career management.

VA acquisition is not perfect by any means. However, through the vision and support of our leaders and the dedication of our hard-working contracting officers, we are making progress. We welcome informed critiques and invite those critics to join the team to help improve our business processes.

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