The VA Acquisition Academy: A model worth building on?

When Ryan Stallings walked into the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy two years ago, he was handed a sponge. That certainly wasn’t what he was expecting, but then again, this wasn’t going to be your traditional acquisition training.

Such training is typically limited to a classroom-based, mind-numbing memorization of the acquisition rules and regulations, ultimately aimed at helping students earn the appropriate certification. But that wouldn’t be Stallings’ experience.

Although the academy incorporates classroom work, it takes a more holistic approach. The coursework goes well beyond rote learning of the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) to cover the softer skills needed by contracting officers. And then it is translated into hands-on experience. That means working under the guidance of a mentor and getting involved in numerous projects, each progressively more complex.

Stallings' task was to soak up all that knowledge along the way — hence, the sponge.

“I graduated [from college] just a few months before I got here, and [the sponge] really signified to me that there would be a lot of information coming at me, things I didn’t learn in undergrad,” Stallings said. “I’m a finance major so I have the business background, but contracting is all new.”

The academy's goal is not to produce FAR-spouting savants but instead to nurture the development of contracting officers and government buyers who understand the FAR and its application to the Veterans Affairs Department's mission.

“We take it to the next level,” said Lisa Doyle, the VA Acquisition Academy's chancellor. “Technical training is not everything. We develop the whole person.”

It should come as no surprise that the wider acquisition community has taken note of the academy's approach.

Across the government, agencies are looking for the next generation of procurement professionals. Contracting officers everywhere are struggling to keep up with growing workloads even as they encounter increased scrutiny from Congress, inspectors general and the public.

But it’s more than just a matter of workload. Agencies also need acquisition experts who understand how to work creatively within the bounds of the FAR to arrive at the best available acquisition strategy for a given program.

The academy offers a valuable approach to meeting that need, said Steve Kelman, professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP).

The academy does more than teach the rules of the FAR, Kelman said. It also teaches students some business savvy. "It's building its education models from scratch” and, for the most part, leaving traditional training behind, he added.

A matter of necessity

VA officials started taking a keen interest in training programs several years ago as a steady stream of retirements among their acquisition workers left them with an increasing number of empty cubicles. Something had to be done — and fast.

After looking into the training opportunities available elsewhere, Jan Frye, VA's deputy assistant secretary for acquisition and logistics, decided that the best option was for the department to start its own training facility.

Frye wanted a program focused on fashioning qualified employees to fill empty slots in VA’s workforce. But he also wanted a program that acknowledged that acquisition is a multifaceted discipline that requires more than a thorough knowledge of the FAR.

With that in mind, Frye turned to Doyle, who opened the academy in 2008 as a school focused specifically on acquisition interns.

Doyle had spent the first 16 years of her career at the Defense Department, where she began as a procurement intern and moved on to be a full-fledged contracting officer. She then moved to the Commerce Department, where she held several positions, including deputy senior procurement executive.

The VA academy was not her first effort to launch a training program. From 2002 to 2008, she worked at Acquisition Solutions (now ASI Government), where she set up the Acquisition Solutions Training Institute. It was designed to develop federal acquisition officers who are capable of leading successful projects.

In keeping with Frye's vision, Doyle has taken a broad view of acquisition and the acquisition workforce. In addition to the contracting officers, who sign contract documents, the academy is open to program managers, who help craft the requirements, and contracting officer’s technical representatives, who play a vital role in post-award contract management.

The academy has five schools focused on specific areas and a potential audience of 40,000 VA employees across the United States, Doyle said.

Holistic training

Many people attend the academy with the goal of receiving or maintaining various technical certifications in the acquisition field. But Doyle said students need to get more from their experience than their certificates.

Students can attend classes and learn enough about the FAR to get the grade they need. But that doesn't necessarily make them effective acquisition professionals, Doyle said. After all, what is the value of being an expert if you can't share that knowledge with the people who need it most?

Furthermore, procurement officials often write solicitations that leave potential bidders unsure of what the agency needs. Clear communications would yield a smoother process and a better result. And contracting officers can reap many other benefits when they explain themselves well to various audiences and make strong presentations.

“One of the keys to communicating clearly is the ability to translate what I call ‘government-speak’ or ‘management-speak’ into plain English,” said Peter Tuttle, a former Army contracting officer and now senior acquisition manager at Distributed Solutions. “Sometimes we are so used to using acronyms, terms of the trade, sophisticated-sounding phrases or words that what we write or say is unintelligible.”

With those needs in mind, the academy emphasizes good writing and speaking skills, Doyle said.

It also helps students with interpersonal skills. Contracting officers and acquisition professionals interact with many people during the procurement process. Contracting officers have to deal with contractors, program managers and their own technical representatives. And they will inevitably encounter auditors from the inspector general’s office or even the Government Accountability Office.

In addition, Doyle said the academy stresses the importance of program management training because managing a contract “is just like managing a program.”

Representatives from government, industry and academia help acquisition interns round out their knowledge of the field through a guest speaker series. The goal is to expose the interns to a wide variety of leaders.

And the training is far from theoretical. Shortly after they begin at the academy, students are put into real-life situations as interns at VA, with mentors to guide and teach them in a way that no classroom course could. For example, Stallings got the opportunity to work on a $100 million IT procurement.

“I have been fortunate to have been infused into some really interesting acquisitions, so I have been lucky with my experience so far,” he said.

“They touch and feel our mission firsthand,” Doyle said. Students rotate through various jobs, working with mentors and the learning labs. As they soak up more knowledge, the jobs become more complex.

In the end, Doyle said, the goal is for students to leave the academy with a head full of knowledge about procurement policies and rules, a heart for the acquisition field, and ears attentive to the nuances of management.

A linchpin issue

Joanie Newhart, associate administrator for acquisition workforce programs at OFPP, said the academy's approach to holistic training could have far-reaching effects. For instance, it could help the government reduce the number of high-risk contracts, save money and improve accountability — all of which are core principles for OFPP Administrator Dan Gordon.

To solve those issues, “it all comes down to the workforce,” Newhart said.

Some of the benefits are intangible. Experts say Doyle is giving students a fresh perspective on acquisition that could pay off in the long run. Like Frye, she sees the FAR not as a rulebook that dictates how government should do business but as a guidebook with a lot of flexibility.

When it comes to trying innovative procurements, she said her philosophy is, “If you can do it, try it.” At the academy, she offers students a chance to test their theories in a place “where it’s OK to fail.”

Doyle wants students to be smart and business-savvy, not risk-averse. “Interns know their purpose is to be seeds of change,” she said.

They’re also seeds of survival.

At the General Services Administration’s Training Conference and Expo in May, acquisition employees shared their concerns with OFPP's policy leaders about who’s coming up the ranks or, more importantly, who isn’t. Too few people are doing too much work, one contracting officer said. Another said employees need technical skills that go beyond the basics, and officials need to work on succession planning as the workforce gets older.

The VA academy is in a good position to help. Although its first priority is filling cubicles at VA, it is joining forces with the Federal Acquisition Institute and the Defense Acquisition University to find ways to address the government’s broader acquisition training needs.

So far, 11 other agencies have sent employees to the VA academy, with many participating in the internship program.

Like Stallings, those interns are likely to be surprised by what they find, beginning with being handed a sponge. But given the current state of the acquisition workforce, the academy can’t afford not to be different.

The woman behind the academy

Lisa Doyle, chancellor of the Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy, is unabashedly enthusiastic about federal acquisition.

“I get up in the morning and am excited to go to work,” Doyle said. “I have the best job in the world.”

She's been a member of the acquisition workforce for years, and now she’s shaping the people who have taken her place in the contracting offices. Her academy helps contracting officers, program managers, contracting officer’s technical representatives and others improve their acquisition skills.

Doyle has more than 29 years of experience as an acquisition professional in both the federal and private sectors. She began as a procurement intern at the Defense Department, where she worked for 16 years. While serving as a contracting officer at the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, she re-engineered the command’s source selection and evaluation process — an accomplishment that earned her the Army's Achievement Medal for Civilian Service in 1995.

After DOD, she moved to the Commerce Department, where she eventually became the deputy senior procurement executive, among other policy and operational positions. She also worked as the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s supervisory contracting officer and led its Acquisition and Assistance Division.

Along the way, she turned her attention to investing in the young workers in the acquisition field. She left the government for Acquisition Solutions, now ASI Government, and developed a training institute there.

When the Veterans Affairs Department needed help creating its own school, she leaped at the opportunity.

“This is my passion,” she said.

The complexity of today’s acquisition field

The Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy offers the Veterans Affairs Department and other agencies a range of courses to help their employees gain knowledge and certification in various aspects of the acquisition field.

Acquisition isn’t simply about awarding contracts, and the academy’s training reflects the breadth of acquisition skills and activities.

The academy has five schools that serve to develop well-rounded acquisition professionals.

  • Acquisition Internship School: Encompasses extensive on-the-job training in a multiyear paid internship, starting at the GS-7 level with a career ladder to GS-12. "This unique program’s competency-based, holistic curriculum focuses on technical, communication, leadership, business savvy, creative thinking and interpersonal skills," according to the academy's website.
  • Contracting Professional School: Enables contracting officials in the VA’s acquisition workforce to earn and maintain their Federal Acquisition Certification in Contracting.
  • Facilities Management School (scheduled to open this year): Will address mandated and technical competencies and occupation-specific requirements for VA's facilities managers.
  • Program Management School: Trains and certifies program and project managers and contracting officer's technical representatives in the skills needed to deliver projects on time, within budget and with the desired outcomes. The training helps acquisition professionals respond to the increasing emphasis on post-award oversight and management of contracts. The academy also wants to train those professionals to be more agile in their thinking and their work. It’s an important part of program management today, especially in IT, where systems can change so quickly.
  • Supply Chain Management School (scheduled to open this year): Seeks to meet the growing need for a better understanding of where products originate and how they reach end users. Defense Department officials and lawmakers believe such skills are essential in a rapidly globalizing economy.

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