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Portraying Government Procurement: Is It The Media Or The Culture?

From The Acquisition Corner

Recent testimony by Steve Schooner, co-director of The George Washington University’s Government Procurement Law Program, and others before the House Armed Services Committee’s Defense Acquisition Reform Panel, helped paint the picture and made valid points about how the media portrays the federal acquisition environment and the current state it is in.

…”The pervasive anti-contractor rhetoric emanating from the media,
not-for-profit organizations, the legislature, the executive branch (including, among others, the Justice Department, Defense Contract Audit Agency and the
inspectors general) colors public perceptions of contractors and the acquisition profession,” said Mr. Schooner. “There is more truth to black humor in Jacques Gansler’s popular new moniker for the current environment — the ‘global war on contractors.’ “…

However, I believe this is only half the story. I believe the media is simply
reporting on what is becoming a culture of “Insource at All Costs,” with little regard to quality of the acquisition workforce, and thus creating the term that Mr. Gansler referenced.

The current environment and culture of the acquisition workforce that new
hires enter into is not a pretty picture. For years the workforce has been neglected, with little attention to building skills or future capabilities. Furthermore, the environment has been one of risk aversion, exacerbated with little need for innovation or developing the tools necessary to be true business advisors and partners for programs. The result is that the acquisition workforce has stagnated on many fronts, and new hires seem to be lost in developing their
own skills.

The average professional in the current workforce is very experienced, but it
is becoming more and more difficult for them to train and mentor new hires, which tend to be younger and less experienced. I do not believe this is a result of generational friction, which may the case in some instances, but more of a function of the lack of resources. Many simply do not have the time, or leadership does not see it as a priority. This very fact was further discussed by Steve Kelman in a recent blog post on this topic.

The federal procurement process is a maze of bureaucracy and mind-numbing
regulations that takes years of experience and know-how on navigating these difficult waters. But as Mr. Kelman pointed out, new hires seem to be given very little focused training to the point that the new hires he was talking to had received no guidance on learning anything about the products or services they were buying. The overall feedback he received was alarming, as was the lack of innovation and underutilization of these talented people who want to serve.
Chairman Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J, said it best:

…”If you make the proper investment in experience and skill, if you
motivate and reward experienced and skilled people and empower them to do the things that need to be done, they can make improvements that can turn the whole system around.”

Ultimately these issues need to be solved by changing the culture and
environment, and driven by the supervisors, senior contracting officials, and acquisition leaders at the agencies to create the 21st century acquisition workforce. Further, empowering the next generation is ultimately necessary to succeed, and not be treated as a necessary-evil but a strategic imperative by leadership.

However, the guidance from the Office and Management and Budget seems to be
more distressing, as I see further evidence of the counter product attitude that seems to be emanating from the various institutions Mr. Schooner identified in his testimony. Leadership is vitality needed to help solve these daunting issues, as industry and government need to be working more collaboratively, expanding ways they communicate, and fining solutions together. However, it seems that the pervasive attitude is for the pendulum to drastically swing in
the government’s direction, vice finding the right balance to perform the vital missions of government to ensure the best outcomes for cost, schedule, and performance.

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Sterling Whitehead

Jaime, if you were King of Procurement for a day, what 3 specific things would you change (and how would you go about changing them) for training new acquisition professionals?

Jaime Gracia

Sterling – I will be posting on Better Buy Project tomorrow to answer part of your question. Not an easy solution, but the three pillars of change would involve training, mentoring, and innovation. We have to find ways to allow talents to be leveraged, and allow new hires to be productive and add value, much like your experience with the Navy. It starts with changing the culture and making the acquisition career path attractive and changing the perceptions. However, using technologies and changing the way government buys, I believe, are the critical success factors that ultimately affect what new hires are doing and add value.

I would ask to turn that question back around to you: What things have you experienced that have been successful? What about drawbacks? I know you have posted about that recently, but what things would you change?

As King of Procurement for a day, I do need a succession plan after all!