More than in past election years, a top contractors group has been diving in to prepare for the coming presidential transition, in part with the release on Thursday of a new survey highlighting concerns over capabilities of the government’s acquisition workforce.
“We are working with the Partnership for Public Service and other groups on a number of papers and a multi-pronged strategy” for meeting with the teams of the major presidential candidates, said Alan Chvotkin, executive vice president and counsel of the 400-company Professional Services Council, at a panel at the ACQUIRE Conference & Expo in Washington, D.C.
Getting an audience with the candidates or staff isn’t easy, added David Berteau, the council’s president and CEO, “because candidates don’t want to be take away one ounce of energy from getting elected.”
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But the plea to the next administration from the contracting industry and survey respondents would be, “Don’t throw things out,” added Berteau. He cited the Obama Pentagon’s Better Buying Power initiative, the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s category management effort at bulk purchasing and ongoing implementation of the 2014 Federal Information Technology Acquisition Reform Act. “The general feeling is the last thing we need is more oversight with what’s now on our plate.”
The council’s eighth biannual acquisition survey, based on interviews with 80 federal acquisition officers, showed concerns over gaps in workforce capacity and confidence, cited as the top worry. A total of 74 percent of respondents said hiring is either difficult or extremely difficult because of barriers, though that number is down five points from two years ago. “Companies and agencies are competing for the same talent pool,” Berteau said. “The workforce is a common challenge that we must work together on,” he added, calling for more “opportunity for cross movement between industry and government.”
The missing skill sets that present barriers to driving positive outcomes include “difficulty defining requirements and inadequate skills in complex information technology procurements,” said Philip Kangas, a principal with Grant Thornton Public Sector, which co-authored the report.
Given the retirement wave, some worry because “Millennials are not keeping jobs for more than two years,” Kangas added. Though the numbers show plenty of optimism that recent acquisition reforms are showing progress, “We could lose investment and capacity, not just in procurement, but insight into financial management, budget, program operations and information technology.”
In doing the survey, “respondents were candid about the challenges they face, as well as positive trends they are seeing,” Kangas said. “Despite both internal and external pressures, the federal acquisition system has been quite resilient, and acquisition officials are dedicated to getting the job done.”
But Congress’ ongoing budget stalemate means things are getting worse for many in acquisition. “We’ve entered a new normal of budget uncertainty”, Kangas said, noting lawmakers’ near total reliance on continuing resolutions in recent decades. “That will mean additional challenges placed on the workforce to execute, a larger workload, more modifications, bridge contacts and notices to proceed. It has degraded the workforce.”
The quality of communication and collaboration both inside government and between industry and government “got mixed reviews,” Chvotkin said. Half of respondents reported improvements, which are largely attributable to relentless messaging from government, he said. The General Services Administration is an example of a “cheerleader for communication,” he said.
He commended GSA’s interactive websites for contractors and past White House efforts such as the “Mythbusters’ papers on industry communication. “Some agencies are more willing to communicate than others,” he said, noting that a third of respondents reported no change in quality of communication, which he attributed to inconsistent messages and a culture of risk-averseness. Nearly half of respondents saw no change in oversight and compliance challenges in recent years, Chvotkin said, though 70 percent see it getting better in the future.
Respondents to the survey and companies would like more industry days and draft requests for proposals, Chvotkin added. Agency officers “would like to attend more conferences, but there remains some stigma” from past overspending scandals at GSA and other agencies, he said.
“Innovation remains an elusive concept for agencies and contractors,” the report said. “On the whole, respondents are concerned the government does not have a consistent, successful strategy for soliciting, evaluating, and contracting for innovative ideas from industry, whether in the ‘traditional’ or ‘cutting-edge’ contracting space,” the analysis said. “On the upside, 43 percent of respondents said access to innovation had gotten better in recent years, and 57 percent expect it to improve in two years.”
Panelists cited the Homeland Security Department’s Procurement Innovation Labs and the Health and Human Services Department’s Buyers Club as examples of innovation successes.
Few contractors and acquisition professionals are fond of the Obama administration’s efforts to police workplace labor rights. “Use of federal procurement as a social policy tool rarely supports efficient and effective federal procurements,” the report said. “Using the government contracting process to advance policy goals–even well-intended ones–creates tension.”
Other barriers to progress toward smooth procurement include a fear of bid protests. Fewer cited low cost technically acceptable contracts as a promising approach for the future.