Anti-Contractor Rhetoric as Common as Fed-Bashing, Industry Says

Group suggests acquisition reforms to counter grim budget and talent drain.

With collaboration between agencies and contractors at a “low ebb,” government should centralize services acquisition-related human capital planning to confront a retirement-wave brain drain and align itself with industry trends, a key contractor group recommends.

Current budget constraints, curbs on contracts and congressional hostility toward the federal workforce have combined to create a climate in which “anti-contractor rhetoric has become at least as common a political tool as public employee bashing,” a leadership commission convened by the Professional Services Council wrote in a report released Monday.

“This lack of collaboration and communications has a palpable impact on program outcomes and quality as well as on innovation,” said the report, produced by industry executives and chaired by Robin Lineberger of Deloitte Consulting and Ellen Glover of ICF International Inc. The authors noted that government is concerned that company proposals “lack originality and innovation,” while industry feels “compelled to propose only within the lines they believe the customer is willing to consider.”

A sign of the tension, the leadership commission found, is the rise in contract award protests in response to the government’s increased preference for lowest price, technically acceptable proposals.

The root problem, the report said, is that “no taxonomy exists that attempts to focus the government’s acquisition strategy decision-making on aligning industry’s risks and rewards with the appropriate outcomes to be achieved.” In a briefing with reporters, Glover said that industry proposals tend to be “vanilla” and “innovation is more the exception than the rule.”

Without action, there could be a “migration of talent out of the services sector -- our equivalent of the degradation of the Defense Industrial Complex,” Lineberger said. Hence the report offers a series of “actionable” reforms that are “whole of government,” though focused on the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, the General Services Administration, the Pentagon and the Homeland Security Department, as well as the Office of Personnel Management. Among them:

  • Teams from the high-procuring agencies should “assess the intersection of human capital planning and the services acquisition and technology fields with an emphasis on skills of the future, talent access, cross-training, development and retention;
  • Agencies should identify and assess alternative, multidisciplinary acquisition workforce training and development methods with a focus on business acumen, contemporary online training tools and enhanced continual learning;
  • Congress should amend the Office of Federal Procurement Policy Act to give OFPP statutory authority over the entire acquisition workforce, including clear authority and responsibility for creating a career path development regime for program managers; and
  • Agencies should institute the “360 degree” assessments of acquisition outcomes as well as “reverse debriefings” that allow industry to give detailed suggestions for future improvements.

The commission met for six months and interviewed more than two dozen agency officials. Though the authors acknowledged that many of their ideas have appeared in earlier government reform treatises, they said they concentrated on “what can or should be done differently to come to grips with long-acknowledged problems as well as newly emerging challenges and what combination of ideas, new or old, offered the best chances for progress.”

Acquisition workforce reforms are a priority of some agency leaders “but are not reflected operationally,” said Stan Soloway, PSC’s president and CEO. His team plans to continue a series of briefings of leaders in agencies and Congress, while Joe Jordan, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, is “anxious to get the report and have a conversation,” Soloway said.

“Too many people underestimate the severity of the current crisis,” Soloway added. Even putting aside the fiscal stalemate, “we could return to regular order tomorrow and that still would not change the fact that industry and government can’t get the right people.”