CAOs: Juggling as a job skill

Why are CAOs not more effective? Maybe because so much of their job has little to do with the title.

Robert Burton

Rob Burton believes that chief acquisition officers have too much unrelated work to do.

One reason chief acquisition officers may be having less effect on acquisition than they might is all the other work they’re doing.

In a recent memo, Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Joe Jordan clarified the purpose of the role and went so far as to invite CAOs to their own CAO Council meetings. (The next council meeting is Dec. 13.)

“It’s odd that you have to invite CAOs to their own meeting,” said Robert Burton, former deputy OFPP administrator and now a partner at the Venable law firm. “I think that sort of says it all. Where are you?”

Where are they? Burton and other experts say CAOs have multiple duties competing for their time, which makes them apt to push acquisition to the side. For one, the Government Accountability Office reported in July that only three agencies out of 16 — the General Services Administration and the departments of Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs — have an official whose primary duty is acquisition. Many officials who bear the CAO title are actually in charge of financial matters, information management, and human capital resources. According to GAO’s report, CAOs spend approximately 27 percent of their time on CAO duties compared to their other responsibilities. Yet officials do not consider these additional responsibilities, despite how much time they take, to be a detriment to the CAO’s acquisition duties.

Burton, however, said CAOs are not necessarily good at juggling all of their conflicting duties, so certain responsibilities fall by the wayside. And too often, acquisition is the one that gets sacrificed, he said.

Acquisition is a complicated field, with many legal factors, a 2,000-page Federal Acquisition Regulation with additional agency-specific supplementing policies and procedures, and the potential for huge fallout for mistakes. The CAO position demands an official with a specialized skill. In Burton’s view, acquisition is one duty that senior officials quickly leave for someone else when duties, such as agency finances, arise.

“I think this is all about CAOs having too many responsibilities and not enough focus on acquisition,” he said.

Former Rep. Tom Davis, who authored the legislation that created the CAO, said agencies have not instituted the position as Congress envisioned it nearly a decade ago. The position was supposed to be focused, full-time, on managing acquisition.

“They’re driven by so many competing priorities they just don’t know what to do,” said Davis, who is now director of federal government affairs at Deloitte & Touche.

The CAO position was created in 2003 with Services Acquisition Reform Act. It requires 16 civilian agencies to establish the CAO position to advise and assist agency leadership in ensuring they achieve the agency’s mission from procurement planning to competitions, and on even to post-award oversight. The law requires a CAO to have acquisition management as their primary duty. Under that management, SARA gave CAOs seven responsibilities, including increasing full-and-open competitions, evaluating acquisition activities, making acquisition decisions, and focusing on the acquisition workforce.

It has not turned out that way, experts say.

“It was basically supposed to be a primary responsibility, not a secondary responsibility for these people,” Davis said.

Agencies: Best and worst

Percentage of time since the passage of SARA that the CAO slot has been filled by a permanent official:

Best

NASA: 100%

Labor: 97%

Transportation: 96%

Worst

State: 54%

VA: 43%

Education: 32%

Source: GAO.

Jordan took a stab at bringing attention to the problem. He issued a four-page memo Oct. 18, telling agencies to figure out what exactly they have their CAOs doing. Working with their career employee counterparts, the senior procurement executive (SPE), officials should “clarify CAO roles and responsibilities, focusing on those that can have the biggest impact on the agency’s ability to meet its mission goals efficiently and effectively,” Jordan wrote. Then he told agencies to send their updated plans to his office by Jan. 15.

In addition, agency officials must update their internal management policies to clearly define the CAO and the SPE roles. Jordan pointed to four areas, including buying smarter, building the right supplier relationships, strengthening the workforce, and working closely with other senior officers in charge of operations and performance improvements. The point is to reflect statutory and regulatory requirements, according to the memo.

Those four areas have plagued the government for years. They are not new demands, Davis said. Beyond them, agencies work among many stovepipes, as officials have been slow to accept broad collaboration, and they struggle with size of their acquisition workforce and those employees’ experience.

“We don’t have enough qualified personnel and more and more bid protests are being upheld just because there’s a lot of mistakes going on,” Davis said.

And in today’s economic climate and the push for savings, the CAO position becomes more important.

“I think more than ever a strong chief acquisition officer is needed,” he said.

The CAO should also bring the various components of an acquisition together, mainly the contracting officers and the program managers, Burton said.

While at OFPP, Burton worked on the Federal Acquisition Certifications, which included training for contracting officer’s representatives, who manage a contract once it has been awarded, and for project and program managers. But many people did not see themselves as part of the acquisition process, Burton said. OFPP found it hard to get buy-in from the managers. However, he said, contracting officers, CORs and program managers should work hand-in-hand to develop good contract requirements and even avoid protests—an idea that is catching on.

Burton said the SARA legislation should not have made the CAOs a politically-appointed position, although that would give the CAO some clout in an administration, because the attention given to the role can shift with each administration’s priorities.

Davis said each administration has different priorities and emphasizes the CAO role in its own way.

“As you can see, over time, one of the difficulties is a commitment from the top,” Davis said. They decide how they want to implement the law, but a strong CAO can drive a lot of efficiencies to the system.

However, “there is tremendous resistance to change in bureaucracy,” Davis said. “Old habits die hard.”

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