Keeping Up With Procurement

By any count, government has too few acquisition pros.

By now, it should be obvious that the federal government lacks a sufficient acquisition workforce to obtain the best value for the money it spends on goods and services. One clear sign came in early 2005, when the congressionally mandated Acquisition Advisory Panel, made up of experts from the public and private sectors, called for study of the workforce. David Drabkin, deputy chief acquisition officer at the General Services Administration, says the panel did the right thing: "Reforms . . . cannot achieve their potential absent a workforce that is both appropriately qualified and sufficiently numerous to implement the reforms."

But the solution is tough to find without determining the extent of the problem. It's difficult to figure out who performs the broad range of acquisition-related functions needed to buy $350 billion in goods, services and construction each year governmentwide. The discussion is constrained by two definitions of the workforce that grew out of the Defense Department's counting methods. The Acquisition Organization methodology counts employees at about two dozen Defense agencies, regardless of actual occupations. The Refined Packard model counts civilian and military personnel in certain procurement occupations, and military officers under the 1990 Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act. Neither approach is particularly effective.

An April report by the Defense Department inspector general criticizes both methodologies, but they tell the same simple story: The acquisition workforce hasn't changed much since 1999. But the IG confirmed what procurement experts already knew: A stable acquisition workforce can't get the job done. The reason is simple. Over the same period, Defense procurement spending increased by nearly $100 billion.

As dramatic as those figures might seem, they actually understate the crisis. The report failed to mention a similar study in 2000, when the IG detailed the way Congress systematically whittled away at the acquisition workforce throughout the 1990s. Although the reductions were part of an overall downsizing, the IG acknowledged that Congress "singled out this segment of the workforce for . . . major reductions." Using the then-mandated Acquisition Organization count, the workforce shrunk from 460,516 in fiscal 1990 to 230,556 in fiscal 1999.

It's easy to forget that this reduction coincided with and, in effect, gutted a congressional attempt to upgrade the qualifications of the procurement force. In 1990, Congress had established requirements for Defense contracting through DAWIA. Then, the 1996 Clinger-Cohen Act mandated DAWIA-comparable requirements for civilian agencies. The cuts also coincided with an aggressive era of acquisition reform that diluted agencies' ability to implement new procurement policies and flexibilities.

As a result, the government lacked enough qualified contracts professionals to meet its needs, even before Sept. 11. Since then, despite a spike in procurement spending for homeland security, military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Katrina rescue and reconstruction, the government has not undertaken any meaningful effort to recruit staff to manage the increased burden. This inadequacy has been evident through subpar contracting solutions and scandals that continue unabated. In May, Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., publicly criticized the practice of employing large contractors in the Gulf region that, in turn, delegate work to subcontractors. Also in May, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., introduced legislation to increase competition for reconstruction contracts. Yet neither the media nor Congress recognizes that increased reliance on larger contracts and decreased competition are predictable pathologies. This problem is not unique to Defense, which accounts for about two-thirds of federal procurement spending and employs the most experienced, trained and developed acquisition workforce.

What the numbers don't show is that overburdened operations don't quit-they keep buying. For example, overwhelmed acquisition offices have driven agencies to rely more on loosely managed interagency contracts. Now the Government Accountability Office has added interagency contracting to its high-risk list.

Even when agencies forgo interagency contracts and keep their procurement functions in-house, limited resources force them to focus more on awarding contracts and less on managing them. This proves problematic as government uses more contractors to shore up its shrinking workforce. Contract management has become the "neglected stepchild" of acquisition reform, says Steven Kelman, Office of Federal Procurement Policy administrator in the mid-1990s who is now at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. And the crisis will get worse before it gets better, because the lion's share of the workforce is retirement eligible.

In an intensely partisan era of massive deficit-spending, neither Congress nor the president sees political utility in investing in procurement personnel. Congress has failed to address insufficient staffing, yet remains enthusiastic about deploying auditors and inspectors general to Iraq and Louisiana to identify acquisition failures.

Despite increasingly poor results and data explaining the system's failures, the administration has made no effort to recapitalize the acquisition workforce. Before his resignation and arrest on obstruction charges in September, former OFPP Administrator David Safavian scoffed at calls to increase the acquisition workforce, saying agencies should "do more with less." He favored the bureaucratic stalling tactic, demanding further study. But Congress needed no study or empirical data in the 1990s to justify its decade-long workforce reduction.

As the Senate prepares to confirm a new OFPP administrator, no bigger issue faces the procurement process. In the years it will take to reach agreement on the optimal head count, agencies could be replenishing acquisition offices. But the recent Defense IG report makes clear that no accurate picture will emerge any time soon. Waiting is like arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. The time to address the problem is now.

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