Panel agrees OMB needs official dedicated to acquisition workforce

A federal acquisition advisory panel has agreed on recommendations to address under-capacity in the acquisition workforce, and a suggestion that the Office of Management and Budget create a new, senior-level position to oversee acquisition workforce policy issues.

In two meetings this week, the panel, convened under the 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act, provisionally accepted a series of findings about the state of the acquisition workforce and voted on recommendations for consistent data collection on procurement personnel, agency human capital planning for the acquisition workforce, and timelines for workforce improvement, among other issues.

A draft recommendation addressing the deeply rooted question of a long-term, stable funding source for training activities was tabled for further consideration, as was a provision suggesting that all federal acquisition training institutions be merged into a single entity.

In a lengthy discussion Wednesday, panelists debated whether a widely agreed lack of acquisition capacity among agencies can be definitively tied to a personnel shortage. Some felt that failures to effectively manage contracts stem from hiring gaps that leave acquisition staffs barely able to keep up with the burden of awarding contracts, let alone overseeing them once signed.

Others said greater numbers might not solve the problem, citing the impact of training, workforce deployment and procurement processes as areas with an impact on ultimate effectiveness.

The group generally agreed that procurement reforms in the 1990s dramatically changed the nature of government acquisition, simplifying small procurements while greatly increasing the complexity of some larger ones and emphasizing time-intensive strategies like best value contracting.

The panel found that training during the same period did not keep up with the pace of change, and governmentwide personnel reductions contributed to what is today described as a "bathtub effect" in which many agencies have acute shortages of procurement personnel with five to 15 years of experience.

The panel provisionally agreed that each agency should formulate a distinct acquisition workforce human capital strategic plan, as part of its overall human capital plan, that would consider any resource gaps, retirement trends and the role of contractors in the procurement process, among other issues. But it urged agencies to move ahead with fixes to problems identified in the early assessment stages, without waiting for the entire process to be completed.

Carl DeMaio, president of The Performance Institute, an Arlington, Va.-based think tank, urged fellow panelists to avoid sending a message that agencies should take a "ready, shoot, aim" approach, but the panel agreed that "due to the severe lack of capacity in the acquisition workforce, aggressive action to improve the acquisition workforce must begin immediately."

Agency workforce plans would be received by a new, senior-level official at OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, according to the recommendations. This official would also look at governmentwide policies related to the acquisition workforce. The panel agreed that OMB should standardize a definition of that group and undertake a governmentwide data collection to track it, citing a methodology being rolled out at the Defense Department.

The acquisition group expects to meet six times before the end of July as it scrambles to meet a six-month statutory timeline to conclude its work. Recommendations on commercial practices and the appropriate role of contractors supporting the government, topics that have spurred lively debate at previous meetings, will be heard over the next two weeks.

Panel chair Marcia Madsen, a partner at law firm Mayer, Brown, Rowe & Maw LLP with extensive experience in government contract law, said she expects a full report, encompassing all recommendations, to be finalized in September or October.

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