By Eviart /

Agency Buyers Express Rising Optimism About Workforce Skills, Communication

But contractors group interviews reveal ongoing worries about budgets, hiring.

Contracting officers around government are feeling more upbeat about their colleagues’ skill levels and ability to execute complicated information technology purchases, according to a survey unveiled on Wednesday.

Despite perennial worries about budgets, regulatory restraints and obstacles to hiring, most of the 65 acquisition professionals interviewed are optimistic, according to the ninth biennial survey from the 400-company Professional Services Council and Grant Thornton Public Sector.

Agency contracting professionals—seen as “more seasoned” after a recent hiring spree—also see improvements in regular communication between their teams' staff and outside contractors.

“This study is reflective of both the current acquisition environment, as well as the lessons we’ve learned over time,” said PSC Executive Vice President and Counsel Alan Chvotkin. “Many of the government respondents have been in the acquisition space for many years and feel confident in their work.”

Eric Heffernan, a principal at Grant Thornton, added, “Compared with past years, a real sense of optimism was evident in many areas.”

Among the encouraging findings was that 90 percent of respondents ranked the capability of the acquisition workforce as the most important factor impacting acquisition outcomes. Less encouraging was that 75 percent described the hiring process as continually difficult, for reasons such as the length of time it takes to bring on staff, the survey analysts said in a Wednesday session with reporters.

Despite a recent defense spending hike (the survey was conducted over several months this spring with legislation pending), more than 60 percent of respondents said budget conditions had deteriorated since 2016, and many did not know what to expect in the future.

Nearly 80 percent ranked internal and external communication and collaboration as critically important, and most expected improvements over the next two years. PSC officials noted that contracting officials are tougher in evaluating their own intra-agency communications than those with outside industry.

Less than half of respondents viewed innovation as important to successful acquisitions but expressed optimism for improvement in the next two years. Reasons for not embracing contractor innovation include a fear of prompting a bid protest and a fear of failure, the analysts said, fears that could deter some innovative companies from entering the market in such new areas as artificial intelligence.

“I don’t think senior leaders are defining the issue well,” Chvotkin said, noting that innovation can be used both to improve outcomes and as an acquisition technique.

Respondents rated the least important issues affecting acquisition outcomes as oversight and compliance, the survey found, though such issues were among the highest when applied to contract performance. Congressional oversight was seen as less valuable than regulatory compliance.

The seemingly nonstop waves of acquisition reforms, however, leave many contracting professionals wary that the “cumulative impact of frequently changing policies places pressure on the workforce and is detrimental to acquisition outcomes.” The workforce “may be taxed to the limit of its ability to respond,” Chvotkin said.

Previous surveys had shown the acquisition workforce losing talent and falling behind on training.

In an example of communications challenges, the survey was released just as the Government Accountability Office released a report recommending that the Defense Department—the government’s largest buyer, and one of the few agencies with an expanding budget—develop a more unified departmentwide understanding of the timeframes needed to acquire major weapons systems.