Chief acquisition officer proposal wins endorsement

Congress should require each civilian agency to put a high-level executive in charge of acquisition policy, the General Accounting Office recommends in a new report.

The watchdog agency endorsed a proposal to create chief acquisition officers at civilian agencies in an assessment of H.R. 1837, the Services Acquisition Reform Act (SARA) sponsored by House Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. The bill would require that the top acquisition officials be politically appointed.

"Our discussions with officials from leading companies indicate that a procurement executive, or chief acquisition officer, plays a critical role in changing an organization's culture and practices," said GAO in a June 13 letter to Reps. Davis and Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

GAO did not weigh in on whether the chief acquisition officer should be a political appointee, an issue that has divided members of the Government Reform Committee. "The critical issue, in our view, is having an acquisition official at a senior level within the organization with enough clout to be able to influence decisions and implement needed structural or process changes," said William Woods, GAO's director of acquisition and sourcing management.

Davis has argued that only a political appointee has the clout to bring acquisition issues to the attention of agency heads. "We desperately need non-career individuals to make sure acquisition gets the visibility it needs at the highest levels of agency management," said Davis spokesman David Marin.

Most agencies have procurement executives that are career employees, but these officials rarely have access to senior decision-makers, according to Angela Styles, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget.

"You have to figure out a way to give that person access to the head of the agency and involvement from the front end of procurement decision-making. Is that a political person? Well, there's a much greater likelihood that a political person is going to be able to have that upfront involvement from cradle to grave than the little 'p' procurement person that we've had," she testified at an April 30 hearing of the House Government Reform Committee.

But critics, including Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., believe putting acquisition policy in the hands of political appointees could damage the integrity of the federal procurement process.

"Certainly the idea of a chief acquisition officer is a good one, but it shouldn't be a political appointee," she said Tuesday. "It should be a career professional, so the [procurement] decision is based on the merits, so it is based on the best interests of the taxpayer and the government." Maloney added she would ask GAO to clarify its position on whether the position should be political.

Davis has said the chief acquisition officer would not have the authority to award contracts. The position would be similar to the Defense Department's undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics, said Marin.

The chief acquisition officer provision is one of several measures from SARA included in the House-passed version of the fiscal 2004 Defense authorization bill, H.R. 1588. Another provision would set aside a small portion of fees collected through the General Services Administration's popular schedules program to train the acquisition workforce. In its letter, GAO said agencies should instead try to fund training through the normal budgeting process.

But agencies rarely get enough funds to adequately train their acquisition workers, Marin said. "When budgets get tight, training is unfortunately the first thing to go," he said. "In today's tight budget climate, this may be the only way to fund training that is crucial to an effective acquisition system."

GAO expressed concern with a provision that would exempt time-and-materials contracts-where vendors bill the government for the amount of hours they work-from federal cost accounting standards and the 1962 Truth in Negotiations Act, which requires firms to submit pricing data to the government. These contracts require agency surveillance to prevent overcharging, putting added demands on acquisition workers, according to GAO.

"Agencies facing acquisition workforce shortages need to consider carefully whether they have sufficient resources to properly oversee time-and-materials contracts," said GAO.

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