Acquisition panel agrees on need for training funds

An advisory panel on Friday agreed on recommendations related to acquisition workforce training and funding and began debate on comparisons between government and commercial procurement practices.

Taking up challenging issues that were tabled last week, the panel provisionally recommended that agencies take steps, such as "fencing off" funding, to ensure that money initially budgeted for acquisition workforce training is used for that purpose and not diverted mid-year to other needs. The panel agreed that the Office of Management and Budget should monitor agencies' spending on such training to ensure that it follows established budgets and conforms with human capital plans.

The panel, convened under the 2004 Defense Authorization Act, debated whether a training fund established under the 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act should be reauthorized or allowed to come to an end after this year. Currently, that funding vehicle is bankrolled through fees on interagency purchases; some panelists argued the setup distributes the financial burden of training unfairly among agencies, while others felt an appropriations line item would be vulnerable to cuts in the present budget climate.

Panelists voted to recommend a direct appropriation for training, though they did not address how much should be set aside.

A controversial draft recommendation to merge workforce training centers, including the Defense Acquisition University, the Federal Acquisition Institute and possibly other smaller centers, proved highly contentious.

Frank Anderson, DAU's president, argued strongly against the idea, citing differences between Defense Department acquisitions and those at civilian agencies. He said the Defense acquisition community is far larger than that of the rest of the government, and combining DAU and FAI would risk damaging the highly successful Defense training facility to improve a civilian one that has not performed as well.

Amid questions on how a new combined federal acquisition university would operate, some panelists decided more study was required to evaluate how a March 2005 move of FAI onto the DAU campus has affected the institutions and the possible effects of a full merger. In a split vote -- rare for a panel that generally reaches unanimity -- the group approved a recommendation that OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy study the matter.

Having completed its acquisition workforce agenda, the panel took up a slate of findings and recommendations related to commercial practices, discussion of which will continue in Monday and Tuesday meetings next week. Initial review of the draft findings spurred debate on the use and misuse of multiple award schedules, the General Services Administration's Federal Supply Schedule and other vehicles for complex procurements.

An association of six industry groups representing businesses that contract with the federal government strongly objected to a set of draft recommendations released in January. Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va.-based industry association included in that group, said he was anxious about some of the new findings but had not had the opportunity to fully review the recommendations.

"I'm worried that inconsistencies and partial statements in the findings will lead to either incorrect or unsupported conclusions," Chovtkin said. As an example, he questioned how the findings describe the use of fixed-price contracts by commercial companies. "It's unquestionable that commercial companies prefer the use of fixed-price contracts, but it's not exclusive," he said. "I'm concerned the findings will draw [the panel] to the conclusion that time and materials contracts are inappropriate in the federal marketplace."

Chvotkin also cited concern with a recommended provision that formal protests be allowed for individual tasks in large procurements.

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