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Acquisition Reform Foundations: People First and Fast

As acquisition reform initiatives move forward in Congress, specifically with the House following the Senate in passing their defense acquisition reform bill, personnel issues continue to be at the forefront of discussions and focus on reform initiatives. Of course it goes without saying that the announcement to bring 20,000 acquisition positions in house at the Pentagon has created more questions than answers, in addition to criticism on how those numbers will be attained.

Of chief concern is how to shore up the numbers considering the difficulties currently faced by the federal government in its hiring practices; a long, burdensome process that can take months to hire a candidate. To help address these issues, OPM issued a hiring guide last year that set an 80 day goal from posting a job announcement and to making an offer. However, almost three months is much too long for a realistic hiring process, specifically when having to compete with the private sector for a limited supply of talent. Understanding the need to bring flexibility and common sense to hiring, two senators active on government reform issues, Sens. George Voinovich, (R- OH), and Daniel Akaka, (D-HI) introduced legislation to revamp federal hiring procedures through the 2009 Federal Hiring Process Improvement Act. This legislation would eliminate the dreaded knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs) essays on federal job applications and emphasize résumés and thus experience and capabilities like the private sector. The bill further requires federal agencies to eliminate the specific government jargon from job postings, the need to develop strategic workforce plans, and create measures of effectiveness in the hiring reforms created to streamline this process.

Even with an increase in the number of personnel, it is the streamlining of the acquisition process that will be critical to real federal acquisition reform. Critics of the focus on numbers say increasing the federal acquisition workforce might not solve the problems.

There was no shortage of Pentagon acquisition workers in the 1980s, but scandals still occurred, said Winslow Wheeler, director of the Straus Military Reform Project at the Center for Defense Information.

“Just adding worker bees to the acquisition process will change absolutely nothing,” Wheeler said.

In practical terms, skeptics say, the prospect of hiring tens of thousands of federal employees and ensuring that they have the right skills now and in the future might be difficult and costly. Some contract employees might be willing to become federal employees, but in other cases, there will be gaps while the government searches for people with the proper skills.

Nonetheless, it is a simple fact that the acquisition workforce needs to be revamped. However, OPM chief John Berry has stated that he expected the hiring process could be simplified within a year and to look into a security clearance issue Voinovich brought to his attention.

“We can’t wait a year” on workforce development and training, said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership for Public Service. “If you don’t do planning right, you’re shooting in the dark.”

It is the “hurry up and wait” culture that must be broken, along with leadership to bring this reform vision to the federal government to create change. KSAs are a waste of time, as the real focus should be on experience, capabilities, and matching those skills to needs. Its seems that the federal government can begin to see real results in improving acquisition outcomes by focusing on getting the right personnel quickly and effectively through streamlined, private sector hiring processes.


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