A toxic work environment threatens acquisition personnel gains

Agencies have made progress in hiring talented acquisition professionals, but unreasonable scrutiny from all sides is encouraging risk avoidance and stifling innovation, according to the Procurement Round Table.

troubled man

Seasoned acquisition professionals say they feel frustrated by bureaucracy and lack decision-making power. (Photo: iStock).

What is the current status of the federal acquisition workforce? Have the actions taken over the past four years helped to address the pressures caused by insufficient personnel and an increased workload? What are the current stress points?

To explore these and other questions, the Procurement Round Table, a nonprofit organization of former senior leaders in federal acquisition, recently convened an informal discussion with a number of current executives from multiple federal agencies. This is the first of two columns in which we summarize some of the key points from that discussion.

The conversation was spirited, and there were some rays of hope, particularly the hiring of additional contracting specialists — though there are agencies that have done little hiring. One participant welcomed the increase in the acquisition workforce. And it’s not just numbers. Another executive said, “The government has hired more super competent people as interns in the last three years than it has in the prior 20 years.”

Still, much of the news was disheartening. Many participants said the current challenges are not related to workload, which suggests that recent efforts to increase the workforce are making a positive difference. Rather, the biggest concern was the toxic work environment and the fear that it will drive talented new employees away. One executive talked about how poorly interns are supervised, saying they complain that they “are not allowed to use their brains, to use what they have been taught.”

But the problems go far beyond internships. Seasoned professionals feel as though they are under siege. As one participant put it, “Acquisition people cannot make decisions and are frustrated at having to send their work through so many layers of review. Warranted contracting officers cannot get the simplest tasks done and are not allowed to make simple decisions.”

According to participants, oversight bodies are contributing to the poisoned work environment. One person said the Government Accountability Office and inspector general “have been very aggressive. The GAO and the IG go to the Hill if agencies do not follow them exactly. It is a very confrontational time right now.” Another said, “In its reports, the [Defense Department] IG makes comments like ‘We need to hold the contracting officer accountable.’ These contracting officers are getting named and sometimes have to come in and testify. Rarely has contracting been held to this standard, held accountable in ways that it should not be.” It was discouraging to hear the lesson one person drew from the experience: “Nothing happens to you if you do nothing.”

We are succeeding in recruiting and training talented people to tackle complex acquisition challenges, but we are then putting them in an environment that drives them toward risk avoidance and a focus on mere compliance. One senior official said, “We tell contracting officers to use their brains, but also that if they make a mistake, they are toast.” Another participant expressed the view that “it used to be a different environment, one [that cut down on] regulation. Now the environment is risk-averse, and everyone is afraid of being reported to the IG.”

Creating a stimulating and rewarding work environment for talented professionals is the key to strengthening the government’s acquisition practices and ensuring that it achieves the outcomes desired for a reasonable cost. After our discussion, we believe we need to raise awareness about the need to find a better balance between oversight — as important and necessary as it is — and promoting the freedom to use good judgment. That flexibility is essential for professionals to thrive and find creative solutions to complex challenges.

Anne Reed is founder of Anne Reed Consulting and former CIO at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Dan Gordon is associate dean for government procurement law studies at George Washington University Law School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Al Burman is chairman of the Procurement Round Table, president of Jefferson Solutions and former administrator of OFPP.

NEXT STORY: Accountability vs. performance

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