Course of Action
DAU's Frank Anderson focuses on training thousands of new procurement professionals.
The Defense Department is one of the world's biggest spenders, and getting bigger every day. Between fiscal 2001 and 2008, Pentagon spending on goods and services more than doubled, to $388 billion. During that period, the scope and complexity of procurements increased significantly. But the size of the workforce handling acquisitions has remained relatively steady, increasing by a mere 3,000 employees, to 129,000.
That disparity has been the subject of dozens of congressional hearings and watchdog reports. "It's not too hard to figure out that unless the productivity of contracting officers dramatically increased we were going to have problems associated with that disconnect, and my view is we have had problems," Office of Management and Budget Director Peter R. Orszag said recently.
While the common perception is an overworked and underappreciated acquisition workforce has resulted in lax oversight of contractors and increases in waste, fraud and abuse, industry representatives say they also suffer the consequences of an overburdened contracting staff.
"We see a greater backlog of the large contract vehicles for which we've submitted proposals that have not been awarded [and] task orders for which we have provided proposals that just take longer and longer to go through the evaluation process," says Jay Dodd, a vice president at strategy and technology consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton. Dodd says contractors usually have to endure long waiting periods to resolve contract modifications with their government clients, since acquisition professionals often are asked to manage more contracts than they can handle.
In April 2009, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced the department would make a concerted effort to increase the size of its acquisition workforce by converting 11,000 contractors to federal employees and hiring an additional 9,000 acquisition professionals by 2015. That would bring the Defense acquisition workforce to around 147,000 employees. He also set a short-term goal of hiring 4,100 contracting employees in 2010, saying the expansion was essential to restoring accountability to the procurement process.
"At a point in time where he was dealing with very tough budget priorities and made some really hard decisions about the DoD future budget, [Gates] also made a decision to make a significant investment, both increasing size and improving the quality and capability of the acquisition workforce," says Frank Anderson, president of the Defense Acquisition University.
The effort is of more than passing interest to Anderson, because he has the job of spearheading the part of it that has garnered the most skepticism-ensuring new acquisition professionals are trained and prepared to do business in the complex world of defense contracting.
"One of the most important things to realize at the end of the day is that simply hiring will not end this conversation," says Steve Schooner, co-director of the procurement law program at The George Washington University. "There is every reason to be pessimistic that even if DoD [officials] can hire all these people, they lack the vision, the institutions and the determination to properly train, allocate, mentor, incentivize, develop and retain all of these new professionals."
Schooner says the Pentagon is relying too heavily on DAU to prepare the acquisition workforce while not giving the organization the resources it needs. "It's underfunded, it's overly conservative, it's been slow, risk-averse and is not sufficient to solve the problem," he says.
Anderson is out to prove him wrong.
Daniel Gordon, administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy, told Government Executive that to be successful, acquisition workforce training must "bridge the gap between the classroom and the workplace." In the past decade, DAU has by necessity undergone a transformation aimed at building such a bridge. In response to a growing demand for training, a limited budget and the desire to take advantage of digital opportunities, Anderson and his staff have set out to "shift the paradigm" at the organization to create what he calls a "global learning environment."
"What we were trying to do is move from this 20th century paradigm where someone had to schedule a classroom, we had to prepare people to come and break them out of their workplace to a paradigm where we use resident training where appropriate, we deliver continuous learning resources, we have knowledge sharing and a number of Web-based assets," Anderson says.
This shift began with the development of DAU's Performance Learning Model, a teaching philosophy that emphasizes a balance between the traditional focus on training courses and new areas such as knowledge sharing (designed to provide students with access to the resources and information necessary to do their jobs), continuous learning (aimed at helping them maintain knowledge gained during training through resources such as online courses and simulations) and performance support (access to follow-up elements ranging from best practices databases to executive coaching). James McMichael, DAU's vice president, says the new philosophy is a response to the reality that students do not retain everything they learn. They do, however, "relearn" quickly, he says. They're able to quickly comprehend and apply concepts they have studied if they have access to refresher materials.
Under the PLM, Anderson and his team emphasize "learning at the point of need"-providing information to acquisition professionals at their desks so they can answer questions, solve problems and move forward with the task at hand. "What we've attempted to do is put our people in a position where they really can show up at work knowing everything they need to know about their job-and not because they have it memorized," he says.
DAU also has changed the structure of its classroom courses. Students are broken up into small groups and given big-picture challenges during their lessons. Classes also emphasize team building and critical thinking skills. For example, in DAU's Contracting 353 class- Advanced Business Solutions for Mission Support-students share issues they have encountered in their work and brainstorm solutions. They work together to take on high-level contracting challenges such as finding the appropriate use of risky time-and-materials contracts and managing rapid acquisitions.
The students in one recent class, all approximately five to eight years into their contracting careers, ranged in age and responsibility. Some managed major defense procurement programs while others primarily used purchase cards and other tools to make small- dollar acquisitions. They were outspoken and engaged during a class on hot topics in contracting, sharing real-world experiences and impediments to implementing rules and regulations.
The PLM has been recognized as a best practice in professional training, winning the best overall award at the Corporate University Best in Class Awards in 2002 soon after it was developed. "There are very few governmental organizations that can say the private sector is benchmarking the government to look at the way we have shaped and deliver our learning environment," Anderson says.
DAU's approach of operating both inside and outside the classroom has allowed it to respond to the growing demand for training. More than 1 million students have graduated since fiscal 2000. The university has seen an explosion of students completing online training courses-from about 13,000 in fiscal 2000 to more than 150,000 in fiscal 2009. Classroom training has increased as well, from about 28,000 students in fiscal 2000 to more than 39,000 last year. "Since our workforce is growing, the challenge from our bosses is to respond to the increased need, and that's what we're doing," says DAU Chief of Staff Joe Johnson. The key, Johnson says, is to find a "smart combination" of online and classroom courses to meet demand.
Even with the shift to online offerings, DAU still faces the daunting task of training more students without much in the way of additional resources. In 2003, a third of the university's budget was devoted to paying for students' travel expenses while they were studying at DAU. In order to reduce these costs, the university established field offices in five regions, strategically located at places with high concentrations of acquisition employees.
As a result, the percentage of DAU's budget devoted to student travel is down to 17 percent today. The university's cost of instruction has dropped from $41.85 per learning hour in fiscal 2002 to $18.33 in 2009. DAU was permitted to bank those savings and reinvest them in other areas. That, says Anderson, has allowed DAU to not only maintain but also to increase resident student training while developing its electronic infrastructure.
While DAU, like any other large organization, must engage in extensive long-term planning, it also must be able to respond quickly to policy changes affecting the acquisition workforce. "As a training organization, we know that we don't own our curriculum," Johnson says. "We have to look at what the administration is saying, what contract reform efforts has the president announced, what agenda does the secretary of Defense have for the acquisition workforce."
In many cases, Johnson says, DAU representatives are on the team helping to develop policies, allowing them to immediately update training courses once changes are implemented. The university maintains databases of student information, allowing officials to e-mail students about policy updates and resources available at DAU. If policy changes are dramatic, the university might deploy professors to provide on-site training.
In recent years, DAU has introduced online short learning modules on contingency contracting, updated contingency-related content in its courses and created new courses, including an advanced contingency contracting course that debuted in January. Forty-eight students already have completed the course.
Anderson acknowledges that training a growing acquisition workforce will be a challenge, but says he is confident the university is equipped to meet it. In fact, he says, DAU was prepared long before Gates' April 2009 announcement. Gates' new policy "didn't just happen," says Anderson. "There was a lot that went in to getting to the point where the secretary believed it was the right thing to do."
At the VA, It's Academic
The Defense Department isn't the only agency with its own procurement training organization. The Veterans Affairs Acquisition Academy is gaining notice, particularly for its internship program, which lasts for three years. Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Daniel Gordon says he is "very impressed with the strategy there," and George Washington University procurement law professor Steve Schooner praises the academy for its "wonderful, holistic approach."
The academy's training space features brightly colored walls and cushy chairs that roll to encourage spontaneous group discussion. "I like things with dual purposes," says Lisa Doyle, the acquisition academy's chancellor, as she pulls a stool-cum-ottoman around the rounded desks connecting interns' cubicles. While Doyle stays hands-on in the design of the academy and its ongoing expansion, she believes what has earned the school's internship program such accolades is its curriculum.
"It's a very robust, competency-based program and we know those technical competencies are very important," she says. "But we also know that it's not just about the technical skills. It's also about inter-personal skills. So our program is . . . infused with leadership, with communication."
Doyle also ensures that the academy's interns fully understand the department's mission and the role they play in meeting it. Interns participate in veterans' service projects and go on frequent field trips.
"In order for them to want to be here, they have to have the same alignment and passion with the mission," Doyle says. "Because I'm bringing them in front of the veterans, they can see that what they do on this desk and what they do on this piece of paper and signing this contract actually does help in executing our mission, which is to care for the veterans."