Buying Time

The presidential transition is looming, but chief acquisition officers still have plenty left to accomplish.

Chief procurement executives, whether they are career officials or political appointees, will have their hands full during the next few months. With the clock counting down to the presidential transition, and with it, a new set of procurement priorities, acquisition leaders have plenty they still want to achieve-and they are going back to basics to get the job done.

Bolstering the size and skill of the acquisition workforce continues to be the primary goal for procurement executives at virtually all federal agencies. With large swaths of the federal workforce eligible to retire in the next few years and agencies frequently competing among themselves, particularly in the Washington region, for talented young employees, acquisition leaders are taking advantage of all options. They're offering incentives to new hires in the form of more training or higher pay grades, bolstering their intern programs and stepping up college recruiting efforts. And, while some acquisition executives have found success from this bottom-up, long-term strategy, others are having difficulty seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.

"We don't have enough competent and skilled acquisition people and we can't hire ourselves out of this problem any time soon," says David Drabkin, a General Services Administration senior procurement official who served as the agency's acting chief acquisition officer for several months earlier this year. "If we had a concerted effort and Congress decided to fund hiring the right number of people, whatever that means, it would still take the better part of six to 10 years to hire the people, train them, get them to school or give them rotational assignments before you would feel comfortable setting them loose on the world with a warrant to buy things."

Range of Strategies

While agencies deal with vacancies and skills gaps, the amount spent on contracting continues to balloon. That's an issue the next president, Democrat or Republican, will be forced to confront.

"Like immigration, the building of the federal workforce is a theme that exists today, and I have to believe that the next administration is going to have to address it," says Rear Adm. Gary Blore, the Coast Guard's assistant commandant for acquisition and chief acquisition officer. "They will have to determine what the core functions of government are and how you properly staff government."

Acquisition leaders have employed a wide range of strategies to fill their many holes. The Energy Department has rehired retirees and used direct hiring authority to bring on new workers. The Homeland Security and Education departments have established robust intern programs to train new workers in contracting and related fields. This strategy is particularly important at DHS, which quickly patched together an acquisition workforce in 2003 by pulling midcareer employees from other organizations.

"Since day one, we've been growing our acquisition workforce by bringing people in from other agencies and from the private sector," says DHS Chief Procurement Officer Thomas Essig. "But there aren't enough people in those groups to meet all our needs. So we have to bring in people at the front end-entry level-and grow our own."

GSA still is trying to get a grasp of how pronounced the workforce problem is and how best to solve it. The agency is dusting off an acquisition workforce succession plan that got lost in the shuffle of an internal transition four years ago. The plan, which GSA plans to update by mid- to late summer, will address the number of GS-1102s and 1170s-the officials who essentially sign the contracts-the agency needs to hire and train annually. And the plan could follow a somewhat un-expected model.

"Over time, the military has developed a pretty dead-on way to calculate what their force structure should be and how many people they have to recruit each year-how many have to go to school or be promoted or, at the midpoint in their career, have to be retained," Drabkin says. "We have not gotten there yet. But the succession planning we are trying to develop would do something similar."

The Defense Department is facing its own issues finding the staff needed to execute some of the government's most complex and critical contracts. Last year, an independent commission determined that the Army faced systemic institutional problems in conducting expeditionary contracting. The service has pledged to beef up its acquisition workforce by 1,400 people during the next two to three years, but a deeper problem persists.

For each new Defense acquisition program, Congress provides funding to purchase and deliver the product, but not necessarily to supply the human capital needed to execute the contract. Personnel funding is disconnected from the process, even for the largest and most expensive of projects, such as the $24 billion mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicle program.

Connecting the department's program and personnel funding would go a long way in solving many of its acquisition issues, says John J. Young Jr., undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "With [the MRAP program] we just had to scrounge to make things work. And that is not a strategy for successfully executing a program," Young says. "And some of these programs that have come to me in trouble . . . are not fully staffed to execute the program on the government side."

Looming Transition

Chief acquisition officers are not following a single blueprint for handling the transition to the next administration-possibly because this is the first turnover in the White House since the position was created in 2003.

At Defense, Young has urged his team to focus not on the transition but on the business at hand. At GSA, Drabkin's team earlier this year began preparing a briefing book to serve as a guide for the next CAO. (In mid-June, GSA named Ted Haddad to take over as the agency's CAO.) At Education, procurement officials are anxious to get a number of high-value contracts awarded and programs moving forward before a new team takes over.

"We are still seeing business as usual on our end," says Hugh J. Hurwitz, Education's senior procurement executive. "But there will be some programs here and there that people will want to get in place before the transition takes place."

Other acquisition executives, how-ever, say their day-to-day operations transcend any one administration. "We haven't stopped and started things based on the political calendar," says Luis Luna, the Environmental Protection Agency's CAO. "There is no specific thing we need to get done before the end of the administration, nothing we will be stopping because of the election. Everything we've been doing has been with an eye toward good management, good accountability and best practices."

While civilian chief acquisition officers are supposed to be political appointees, most of the people who report to them are career employees. Unlike their appointee counterparts, who will be departing in January or earlier, many of the government's most experienced acquisition executives will be sticking around long after the transition and picking up the slack until new politicals are put in place. But, whether they are staying or going, the transition presents its own set of unique challenges and opportunities.

"The biggest transition year challenge is to maintain the required momentum for important initiatives, pending support from the next administration and Congress for fuller implementation," says Martin Brown, senior procurement executive at the Health and Human Services Department. "The next chief acquisition officer will bring her or his political perspective to bear, resulting in slight shifts in organizational priorities."

Acquisition executives work to be agile so their processes and acquisitions remain relevant even as administration priorities change. "Sometimes you'll see a shift in mission emphasis. There'll be administrations that are more environmentally focused; you'll have some administrations that are more security focused," says the Coast Guard's Blore. "But we're a very multimission organization. The same cutter, for example, that does homeland security missions does environmental missions. So as an acquirer, it really doesn't change what I'm acquiring."

Adds DHS' Essig: "What the president's management agenda is, which specific programs the administration wants to pursue, that will change. But because our processes are in place, we'll adapt to that easily."

Of course, the irony of any transition is that, in many respects, success is measured by how replaceable an agency's top executives become. An agency that doesn't miss a beat when its leader is replaced might be a blow to the most fragile of egos, but most agree it's a sign of sound management.

"At some point I should be in a situation where I become expendable," says HUD's Neurauter, himself a career executive. "I walk out the door and this operation continues to hum like it should hum."

A Full Plate

While workforce and transition-related issues preoccupy many CAOs, these multidimensional executives are juggling plenty of other issues, too. Defense, for example, has 16 acquisition programs-twice the norm-heading into Milestone B, the final and most costly development phase. "This is when we've had some challenges," Young says. "So, I try to remind people that this is a major year for setting the future course for the Defense Department."

While some agencies are plotting a course to stay out of contracting quicksand, others are pulling themselves out of holes years in the making. For roughly 15 years, Energy's contract management has been on the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list. The department has been criticized for missing major contract milestones. Often-delayed requests for proposals and contract awards have frustrated the industry. But, after years of struggling to diagnose its problems, Energy, which during the past 18 months has taken on a major effort to reengineer its business processes, appears ready to turn the corner.

Frank Spampinato, Energy's chief acquisition officer, says the agency has focused on getting its contracting and programming management teams to work more cohesively. The department is close to completing a corrective action plan, and if all goes according to plan, Spampinato expects to get off the high-risk list by 2011. "We have a good plan moving forward and good path to get off of it, but you still have to collect the measures," Spampinato says. And, he notes, "The be all and end all is not to get off the high-risk list. It's to make your processes work better."

With Congress and executive branch auditors keeping a close eye on procurement operations, acquisition officials are focusing on the fundamentals of contract management, from establishing clear and consistent guidelines during the pre-award process to effective price controls and oversight in the post-award phase.

For Education, that means an enhanced focus on program management, transparency and contracting data accuracy. GSA is developing an integrated contract writing system that can be used by its growing emergency contracting cadre. DHS, meanwhile, is working to reduce program redundancy and to identify gaps in its ability to develop the necessary capabilities to meet new threats. EPA has focused on a strategic approach to cost avoidance, using such concepts as shared service centers and the administration's beleaguered competitive sourcing initiative to reduce costs. The agency also is close to finally deploying its long-awaited $17 million

e-acquisition system that will connect its contracting disciplines with its financial management system.

"We are saying to our employees, 'The work goes on, regardless of who is president or who is administrator,' " Luna says. "This agency really needs to have a horizon that looks five and 10 years down the road as opposed to what we did before. If we're perfectly positioned for 1990, we are not going to be ready for 2010 or 2020. So let's not keep looking backwards. Let's look forward."

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