A Lot to Learn

The only cure for an overloaded procurement system is to recruit and train top-notch talent.

The contracting careerists who entered government in the late 1970s have seen the field go from large to small and requirements go from simple to complex. Demands have increased exponentially. At the same time, congressional involvement has gone from occasional to constant, and laws affecting federal employees and ethics have gone from few to many. All this while the average age of the workforce continues to rise, bringing the added challenge of planning for impending retirements.

More privatization has resulted in contracts for almost every type of work the government performs. These privatized or outsourced functions in many cases have become top dollar, long term and highly intricate-driving the need for more personnel and more sophisticated skills. Because this increasing complexity has been gradual, there has been no corresponding strategy for recruiting, retaining and training the contracting workforce to effectively lead government into this new age.

All federal organizations should take notice and take action.

In the Defense Department alone, the procurement workload nearly doubled between 1997 and 2004, from $125 billion to $240 billion, even as the workforce was shrinking (from 20,000 to 19,000) and aging (from 44.6 years to 47.1 years). Part of this dynamic is due to efficiencies and economies of scale, but the dominant reason is the magnitude of the procurements. The number of contracts is about the same, but complexity has risen significantly, as have the dollars awarded. Factors include the move from sealed bids to best value awards, the mandate to evaluate past performance and the shift from detailed specifications to performance-based criteria.

We have one civilian personnel system, yet we have laws on the qualifications, training and education of Defense procurement workers and other laws applying to non-Defense personnel. Certification of contracting professionals requires completion of courses that only government personnel-in some cases only Defense-can take, precluding many talented individuals in industry or civilian agencies from this workforce because they can't get equivalent credentials.

Unfortunately, media coverage has been focused on bad news and perceived problems. Within the past year, senior officials at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy and the Air Force and a member of Congress have been involved in ethics scandals, tainting the overall perception of the profession. Numerous stories have alleged impropriety in Defense contracts in Iraq and agencies' awards in response to Hurricane Katrina.

There has been little attempt in the media to explore root causes of the inefficiencies and stress inherent in the federal procurement system. Instead, issues of ethics have been mingled with issues of efficiency, leading to the conclusion that the contracts profession should be subjected to more regulation and management.

Regardless of any long-term solutions proposed, three immediate actions could prevent the coming train wreck:

  • Enlarge the procurement workforce. Considering the increased workload during the past decade, staffing reductions and the critical missions required today, more resources are needed.
  • Expand and intensify efforts to market federal procurement careers to recent college graduates. Existing authorities-including recruitment and relocation bonuses and stepped-up grade and within-grade hiring salaries-should be used to attract the best and brightest.
  • Implement universal training, qualification and certification of contracting personnel across government and industry. These standards should include equivalencies outside government to help attract mid-career and senior contracting professionals from industry.

An increase in resources would yield immediate results and enable agencies to meet today's critical requirements. We must recognize that right-sizing today means having enough contracting professionals with the right skills in the years ahead.

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