Recruiting remains a key concern for acquisition chiefs

Editor's note: The following story appears in the Sept. 15 issue of Government Executive Magazine, which focuses on the challenges facing C-title federal executives. For a directory of more than 500 key decision makers in federal finance, information technology, procurement and personnel, click here.

No matter which party wins control of the White House, within 18 months, a new group of top procurement executives will be setting contracting policies come 2009, and they could be radically different from those of the current administration. So today's chief acquisition officers have no time to lose in accomplishing their objectives.

The president's highly touted competitive sourcing strategy is floundering and in need of resuscitation. Most agencies are failing to meet their small business contracting goals and Congress is getting restless. Data integrity continues to be a critical under-the-radar concern. And the depleted acquisition workforce, further threatened by the rapidly approaching retirement of roughly half of all personnel, remains the stay-awake-at-night issue for procurement chiefs.

"We want to leave the place better than how we found it," says Luis Luna, Environmental Protection Agency chief acquisition officer. "But the decisions that I am making are not suddenly being constricted because of an 18-month clock. It's really looking at what's best for the agency five years and 10 years and 20 years out. We are going to make progress, and my successor . . . will be able to build on something that is not here because of partisan reasons but because of good management reasons."

No matter which initiatives they're focusing on, CAOs view their jobs with a wide-angle lens, setting in motion ambitious programs they anticipate will outlive their tenure. The beefed-up influence now being exerted by CAOs is what Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, had in mind when he wrote the bill that created the position. The 2003 Services Acquisition Reform Act requires the heads of 17 agencies to name a political appointee whose primary responsibility is acquisition management. The rule is interpreted fairly liberally by more than a dozen agencies whose CAOs double in nonacquisition roles.

"Since enactment of [SARA], federal agency chief acquisition officers and the CAO Council have been working to increase the visibility and prominence of federal acquisition policies and practices within the federal government," says David Marin, Republican staff director for the committee. But while CAOs are casting a larger shadow over the acquisition community, most still lack the resources and personnel to dramatically improve the way the government purchases its goods and services.

"This was a problem 10 years ago," says Frank C. Spampinato Jr., CAO of the Energy Department and one of the few acquisition chiefs to work his way up the ladder on the career side. "We didn't hire more and we talked about doing more with less, and we eventually realized that we can't do more with less. We have to do a little less with less."

Help Wanted

While Congress focuses much of its attention on no-bid contacting and the dearth of oversight on major procurements -- consequences of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Coast Guard's Deepwater acquisition of a suite of new equipment -- buying chiefs suggest that most if not all the problems are caused by the shortage of acquisition experts. But the dilemma is proving more difficult to solve than the crossword puzzle in the Sunday New York Times.

Hiring a wave of new employees could come close to solving it, but the private sector pays better. Keeping more experienced employees on board would help, but for a beleaguered, overworked buying corps, retirement and the possibility of industry careers beckon. In the meantime, the too-small middle of the procurement workforce -- the result of a hiring slowdown a decade ago -- continues to concern agencies.

"We have a full-blown crisis throughout the federal government," Spampinato says. "A lot of our issues in acquisition have been generated by the dwindling workforce and the competencies that we once had that we don't have now. When we really make significant progress in the workforce issues, we will make progress in the other areas."

For some agencies, the problem is particularly pronounced. At the State Department, the dollar value of procurements has doubled in the past four years, but the agency has seen "really no increase in civil servants," says Cathy Read, director of acquisitions management.

A shortage of contracting officers led to dozens of exorbitantly expensive no-bid contracts in the wake of Katrina. The Homeland Security Department has made strides since then but difficulties persist. "Our biggest challenge is growing the people as our workload in acquisition dollars has grown," says Elaine Duke, DHS chief procurement officer.

Due to the nature of its mission and the fact that it's a relatively new agency, DHS has been forced to put what Duke calls "strategic" concerns on the back burner to some extent. Many of its top priorities -- protecting the nation from dangerous people and guarding critical infrastructure -- are executed through acquisition.

"The programs are very challenging just by themselves, but we're having to at the same time build processes, build the people, build both the formal and informal structure which are both important for success. That's what's really hard," Duke says. "There is this urgency of execution, and you're making up and developing the processes as you go."

Recruitment Troubles

The number of unfilled contracting positions governmentwide is troubling. The Education Department's vacancy rate hovers around 20 percent; DHS' is closer to 18 percent; the Coast Guard must fill 20 percent of its slots on the civilian side and 14 percent on the military side.

Worse yet, agencies compete with each other to attract talented acquisition recruits. In the Washington region, where the bulk of agencies are headquartered, the skirmishing is particularly fierce. "We're competing with everyone else for that skill set," says Rear Adm. Gary T. Blore, Coast Guard assistant commandant for acquisition. "That's not unique to the Coast Guard or unique to the Navy or unique to other federal agencies. There just aren't enough acquisition professionals to go around."

The Coast Guard often relies on other agencies to fill support roles when it is not equipped to manage a program on its own. Blore admits, "We're pretty shameless about borrowing."

The Health and Human Services Department was the first civilian agency to receive and implement direct hiring authority, using it to fill 40 acquisition positions. Martin Brown, the agency's senior procurement executive, says the strategy "has allowed us to fill critical acquisition positions quickly using a flexible, streamlined recruitment and selection process."

EPA offers student loan repayment while Education is experimenting with telecommuting. The Housing and Urban Development Department succeeded in filling its vacancies by expanding its focus beyond the Beltway. HUD Chief Procurement Officer Joseph Neurauter says a recent reorganization put him in charge of all contracting specialists, not just those at HUD headquarters in Washington. By making personnel in the field offices equal partners with those at headquarters, Neurauter has been able to disperse the workload and more successfully recruit qualified staffers.

"The reorganization . . . has really helped a great deal in terms of leveraging the experience and the ability to recruit and retain people out in the field offices, which, I can tell you, is much easier to do than at headquarters," Neurauter says. "There seems to be a lot less competition for contracting specialists; there are enough people that seem to want to go into that field. There's not the revolving door and competition that we have in D.C."

Back to Basics

Amid complex challenges, procurement officials are focusing on the fundamentals of acquisition management, including establishing clear, consistent requirements, strong oversight, cost-control incentives and a working government-industry partnership. "These are not new ideas," Blore says. "At one time we did this right, and now we're going back to what I would call traditional good acquisition."

For some, the brass tacks of contracting means making better use of modern technology. Several agencies have begun automating procurement through Web-based systems that can manage each step of a contract and integrate the data with the department's financial system.

State has launched and updated its e-procurement system, and HHS is deploying a consolidated acquisition system. By early 2009, the agency's requisitioning and contract writing systems will be integrated with the HHS Unified Financial Management System.

Meanwhile, EPA is in the third year of a four-year plan to acquire an automated setup. "We have a system now that's held together with baling wire," says EPA's Luna. "It's obsolete, and the staff spends literally half its time keeping it up and running, and nobody supports it anymore."

At Energy, Spampinato has a full plate of initiatives. He wants to finally get off the Government Accountability Office's high-risk list for contract management, improve Energy's lackluster competitive sourcing figures, and increase the speed and reliability with which contracts are posted and awarded.

"Our processes have been, rightfully so, often criticized over the years for being slow," he says. "Once you release a date for an RFP going out the door and then all of a sudden you miss that date, your credibility is gone. And that has happened more times than I would care to mention."

While they seek to move contracts more quickly and efficiently, acquisition chiefs know they cannot sacrifice small businesses. Few agencies have met the governmentwide goal of awarding 23 percent of all contracts to small firms, a task that becomes more difficult as agencies press forward with strategic sourcing initiatives that involve consolidating purchasing.

The challenge has been particularly pronounced at Education, which experienced prodigious contract growth in the wake of the No Child Left Behind legislation enacted in 2002 and has yet to completely catch up. Improvements are under way; the department let 12 percent of its contracts last year to small businesses, up from 9 percent in 2005.

"We are not going to magically [reach 23 percent] until we go through this process of looking across the spend, seeing if we can break it down in areas that have not been blown out of proportion," says Glenn Perry, the department's senior procurement executive.

The back-to-basics approach is forcing contracting officials to view acquisition management as a long-term process. "I'm trying to build on what's been done to ensure that we are a true cradle-to-grave operation in terms of partnering with our customers from the time they develop the requirement through the planning process . . . all the way through to contract administration and closeout," Neurauter says.

But with the clock ticking on the Bush administration, is there time for a cradle-to-grave approach?

Procurement officials say yes. "This may sound optimistic," Blore says, "but if you have good, well thought-out major acquisition programs that are built on real requirements that have been approved and good contracts, a change in administration or a change in the major party in Congress doesn't really affect the on-going acquisition programs."

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