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Acquisition Workforce Reform Starts From Within

From The Acquisition Corner

The Federal Acquisition Innovation and Reform (FAIR) Institute, a nonprofit focusing on federal contracting reform, earlier this month released a report on acquisition workforce development in conjunction with their Point of View series on federal contracting. The report, like their earlier work, is a common-sense approach to tackling difficult issues in the federal contracting arena. Their latest report is worth noting since so much attention seems to be focused on numbers and hiring acquisition personnel instead of creating a strategic approach to capability building and filling needs and preventing further knowledge gaps.

I have written about this subject on numerous occasions, and the latest FAIR report mirrors what I believe is a successful formula for realizing true acquisition reform, which is to focus on people and developing an in depth analysis of the internal environment for long-term retention and development. As the report notes, today’s current acquisition environment is poorly aligned and balanced due to the lack of a right-sized and properly skilled acquisition workforce:

… Acquisition, which should be a strategic business process, has instead become a production line environment. The emphasis is strictly on getting the money out the door and worrying later if the right thing is being bought. Workforce resources are focused on awarding a contract, and once that’s done, handing the contract off to a usually ill prepared and uninterested Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative (COTR); meanwhile the program manager and contracting officer start to churn out the next contract…

This is absolutely the case, as the concept of the business manager and strategic advisor has been subsumed through a focus on merely output. This current environment is unsustainable for workforce development, as new hires will feel marginalized, overwhelmed, and soon be burned-out without the prospects of seeing any chances of career advancement or development. Instead, they will enter a system where acquisition personnel are drones, in a world where the ability to think strategically is not possible for the sake of time, and limited ability to improve skills to concentrate on positive outcomes. Further exacerbating the dysfunctional environment, as noted by the report, are external pressures, contradictory policy changes, inspector generals who have become the oversight body, and the creation of a “no-win” situation for acquisition personnel who are some of the most important players in government operations and first-line stewards of taxpayer funds.

Fixing this environment requires careful planning, in addition to a parallel focus of hiring strategies to get high-quality candidates engaged for public service. Along those lines, structural changes are necessary to make a difference. The report notes that creating a single acquisition series will go a long way to develop a life-cycle process where all players are involved up-front to make integrated decision and create an environment where real outcomes are the norm. This process involves program management, contracting, and requirements management. These three pillars are the foundation for government contracting, and need to done in parallel and fully integrated for a procurement to be successful. However, it is the requirements management function that is the one that is most intriguing, and the one most often neglected in the current environment. According to the report:

…Creating the specialty of a Requirements Management Specialist would address many of the issues plaguing acquisition. A dedicated function with appropriate. training and experience covering the full life cycle of requirements – from initial definition to final delivery – would provide emphasis on the importance of this function that is lacking in the current structure. This position would be for someone who could translate the users’ and program managers’ need into an acquisition package and then manage the resulting contract after award…

Starting out with poorly defined requirements will often lead to poor acquisition outcomes. It is a simple formula. A recent report by Business Executives for National Security identified the requirements definition process as a critical breakdown in the process. The current process needs to be an interactive and collaborative one, where the use of social media tools and technology are the drivers for exchanging knowledge. Organizing the acquisition community into a fully integrated workforce will also help organize and manage data and drive an effective needs development process that includes all stakeholders and has a focus on quality, technological maturity, and feasibility for cost and schedule realism. This is opposed to the current process which is often declarative, and serves the end-user or the warfighter poorly.

Of note is the fact that these changes can realize enormous impacts and have a positive direction on acquisition reform. All that is needed is sound, strategic leadership without the need for legislation. As the FAIR report points out, focusing externally on acquisition workforce reform is a losing strategy that will require us to have the same discussion in the near future. The pendulum can no longer keep swinging as we face enormous budgetary pressures with no end in sight. Let’s cure the disease and not focus on symptoms once and for all.

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