A Stronger Voice

CAOs need more clout to fix the flawed acquisition system.

As the Obama administration identifies potential appointees for chief acquisition officer positions, it's a good time to re-examine the law that created this important job. The 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act set out, among other things, to ensure effective acquisition leadership at civilian agencies through the establishment of CAO appointments, but it has fallen short.

Despite SARA's broad definition of acquisition, it fails to reach beyond the narrow procurement community. CAOs are intended to have far-reaching responsibilities, but the law does not ensure the function is full time or that appointees are qualified and have the necessary authority.

SARA also failed to forge effective stewardship for the entire acquisition life cycle. As long as agencies view acquisition and program management through separate lenses with separate solutions, they will continue to be hamstrung in acquiring services and goods.

Civilian agencies spend $132 billion annually through the acquisition process, anywhere from 25 percent to 90 percent of their discretionary budgets. Yet most CAOs have other major responsibilities-including finance, budget, human resources and acquisition-and their primary duties often eclipse their acquisition role.

Most have little or no acquisition experience. The federal acquisition system is fraught with potential missteps and pitfalls, requiring someone at the helm with leadership skills, business acumen and a fundamental understanding of government contracting.

Another hurdle is their lack of authority. CAOs cannot make decisions to continue or cancel a program, even in the face of recognized failure, nor can they direct program managers and sometimes even procurement staff. At some agencies there is little collaboration between the chief acquisition officer and the senior procurement executive, who manages the day-to-day acquisition operations.

To strengthen the role of CAOs, the new administration should direct agencies to:

  • Appoint individuals who have acquisition expertise.
  • Establish the position as a full-time function.
  • Make the procurement executive deputy to the CAO, to provide seamless political-career leadership.
  • Make CAOs accountable for the quantity and quality of the acquisition workforce, including contracting and program management.
  • Require CAOs to measure, monitor and publicly report on their acquisition process and programs, the same way chief financial officers provide financial statements.
  • Give CAOs decision authority on major acquisitions.

Each department should establish a business council as the lead authority on all acquisition matters. The council would consist of top executives-such as the chief acquisition, financial, information and human capital officers-chaired by the deputy secretary and reporting to the secretary. The Defense Department has the model structure that embodies specific decision-making roles for acquisition leaders and encompasses all acquisition functions, including program management.

Congress should evaluate the power, structure and resources at the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, which sets the governmentwide acquisition standard. Lawmakers should strengthen OFPP's authority over the procurement workforce and program management, and boost its staffing and resources.

These changes would enable CAOs fully to perform their role as Congress intended.

Al Burman, a former OFPP administrator, is senior vice president of Jefferson Consulting Group. Shirl Nelson is a former senior procurement executive and deputy assistant secretary, and a consultant to Acquisition Solutions Inc.

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