Acquisition workforce losing talent while hobbled by oversight, survey finds

The piecemeal approach to acquisition reform has not solved the problems that everyone knows we have," said Professional Services Council's Stan Soloway. The piecemeal approach to acquisition reform has not solved the problems that everyone knows we have," said Professional Services Council's Stan Soloway. Flickr user govwin

The government’s acquisition professionals are facing the new budget austerity with inadequate experience and training just as a rising portion of their time is being eaten up by compliance with auditors, according to a survey of federal employees.

The wave of retirements already in progress across agencies along with an increase in “burdensome” requests for documents by inspectors general and Congress combine to harm the acquisition workforce’s ability to make creative decisions in the interest of the taxpayer, says the analysis of interviews with 40 key officials released Monday by the Professional Services Council and Grant Thornton LLP.

“The piecemeal approach to acquisition reform has not solved the problems that everyone knows we have,” PSC President and CEO Stan Soloway said. “The new Congress must take a holistic approach to strengthening the acquisition workforce.”

The contractors’ sixth biannual survey, titled “The Balancing Act: Acquisition in an Unabated Crisis,” found that 71 percent of key acquisition specialists said their workforce challenges have worsened in past two years. Demand for acquisition work has increased for 70 percent, but only 32 percent said resources have increased, the report said.

“We're seeing retirements and a strain on the acquisition workforce as the balance has tipped to a more inexperienced and junior workforce,” Grant Thornton principal Phil Kangas said in a conference call with reporters. Too many acquisition professionals today have “no efficient ability to mentor junior staff,” he added. “You can't just send these people to training; you have to give them the benefit of being with people who've actually done the work, the innovations and the rudimentary processes for performance-based acquisition.”

The interviewees work at the Defense, Homeland Security and Treasury departments and the Office of Management and Budget, as well as the General Services Administration and congressional committee staffs.

Weaknesses the report identified include skills in negotiating, considered vital in awarding contracts that provide quality products and services at an acceptable price. The survey found that seven times more respondents cited those skills as being a major workforce weakness than cited it as an area of proficiency.

Similarly, only one in 10 respondents stood behind the current workforce’s competency in front-end planning in acquisition -- such as defining a program’s requirements and contract type -- with a fourth calling such skills nonexistent or in need of improvement.

Competition for talent, particularly in the engineering and information technology fields, is viewed as more of an “intragovernmental” challenge than one pitting the private sector against the public, the contractors group said. “The poaching of experienced acquisition resources for better pay among federal agencies has also fostered a series of issues, from loss of institutional knowledge to unjustified promotions creating execution risk,” the analysis said. “Thus, rather than being able to grow the acquisition workforce and train them on emerging mission and business challenges, the shrinking pool of professionals is being auctioned to the highest agency bidder willing and able to make short-term ‘market’ skills hiring.”

Oversight of the acquisition community by the inspectors general, auditors and Congress “reflects an ongoing and destructive conflict that is severely inhibiting innovation and reasonable risk taking,” said the report, noting that past surveys showed the same complaint. “The ever-growing compliance regime, much of which they do not see as adding value to the process, is robbing the acquisition community of crucial time and resources that would otherwise be used to more effectively execute their day.”

While resources for responding to inspectors general are “not increasing,” one respondent said, “their focus on IT projects and IT programs and assessing these functions has our folks being reviewed to death.”

A bright spot among the respondents was the recent push for more strategic sourcing, or bulk purchasing across agencies. “Strategic sourcing has been successful,” said one respondent, “but the low-hanging fruit may all be taken.”

The fears about inadequacies in the acquisition workforce are “a big red flag, a call to action,” Soloway said. Past efforts to “reset the workforce” clearly have not worked.

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