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Survey: Acquisition Workforce Falling Behind on Training

Contractors group warns that budget uncertainties and brain drain threaten prospects for improvement.

The buyers of products and services across government are not receiving the fresh training or modern skill sets needed to innovate and acquire the complex technology called for in today’s agency missions, according to a survey of federal acquisition employees released on Thursday.

“The acquisition workforce’s skills in areas such as business acumen, negotiation, risk mitigation and understanding complex information technology fall well short of what acquisition professionals say is required,” said Stan Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. PSC and Grant Thornton prepared the seventh edition of a biannual survey titled “A Closing Window: Are We Missing the Opportunity for Change?”  

“This not a failure of the workforce,” Soloway said, “but a result of our collective slowness to recognize the need for major change” in education and support.

In a session with reporters, he cited frustrations over a “growing gap” between acquisition specialists and the end users who increasingly say the technology being delivered isn’t suitable.

“The workforce is told to pursue innovation but too often lacks the tools and institutional support to do so,” the report said.

The No. 1 problem named by survey respondents was budget uncertainty. Nearly 60 percent agreed that the budget situation has become more unstable over the last two years, and that the inability to plan is “more detrimental to agency operations than specific budget reductions,” said the analysis of the survey, which polled the largest sampling ever and included parallel interviews with industry officials.

“The budget uncertainty has a ripple effect on innovation, collaboration, communicating and oversight,” said Grant Thornton Principal Phil Kangas, citing a need to inculcate key skill areas of business acumen, negotiating tactics and conducting complex information technology acquisitions.

Those skill sets exist in the market, Kangas added, but he said survey respondents indicated that the federal hiring freeze and the “cumbersome hiring process has meant we’ve lost a lot of qualified people to industry.” Respondents pointed to the Office of Personnel Management as a “significant barrier to hiring quality people,” particularly because of veterans preference and the length of the process, he said.

The surveyed acquisition leaders called the oversight of their work—both internally and externally from Congress and inspectors general--a burden that “is often non-value added and a key force in creating the risk-averse environment. The compliance regime remains significant, with more data calls, and there’s been no change in the incentives and disincentives,” said Alan Chvotkin, the council’s executive vice president and counsel.

Governmentwide efforts such as the “mythbusters” guidance from the Office of Management and Budget, the report said, “have not been sufficient to fully address the risk-averse approach to communication with industry.” More than half the acquisition leaders rated the selection of correct contract structures, techniques and strategies as extremely important, yet only 5 percent rated their workforce as highly competent in these skills, and only 38 percent saw improvement in their workforce’s skills in these areas over the past two years.

In the broader picture, Soloway said, the rise of a lot of extracurricular efforts, such as acquisition innovation prizes, contests, the General Services Administration’s 18F IT skills program and the White House-based U.S. Digital Service, “are a signal of lack of confidence in the acquisition workforce.”

A more optimistic view among respondents was reported in the area of communication and collaboration among contracting officers, program managers and industry, the report said.

The contractors group’s leaders reported that their conversations with OMB and the Homeland Security Department have suggested a willingness to try new things in boosting the acquisition workforce. “The good news is the 114th Congress has made acquisition reform a prominent issue,” Chvotkin said, “so hopefully that will lead to a more streamlined process.”

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Editor's note: This article has been updated to clarify that Phil Kangas' comments reflected the views of survey respondents, not his own.