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Message Not Received: A Bleak Outlook For Acquisition Reform?

Communication is key. Peter Drucker once said, “The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.” But sometimes, subtleties fail us, and in government, if we rely on hearing what isn’t said, we can get ourselves into major trouble.

Chris Dorobek, host of the podcast DorobekINSIDER, recently interviewed Stan Soloway, President and CEO of the Professional Services Council on their recent survey of federal acquisition professionals, looking for trends in the sector. The survey is bleakly entitled: “A Closing Window: Are We Missing The Opportunity For Change?

Many of the findings of the report warn of the perils of non-communication in working towards acquisition reform. Soloway’s interview suggested that the field of federal acquisitions is rife with failures to communicate.

First of all, there’s non-communication about the status of funding. Professionals don’t know when and if they will receive funding, and how much it will be. When they do get funding, they sometimes have a very short turnaround time in which to spend it.

Those factors significantly hurt the general morale in acquisitions. “It impacts workforce, it impacts innovation, it impacts everything, doesn’t it?” said Soloway.

Secondly, there’s a huge communication gap between the leadership and the rising professionals.

Professionals lower down in the organizations want the freedom to take risks and innovate, but rarely do they do so because of what Soloway referred to as a “rigid rules based environment.” So, the acquisition buyers elect to play it safe, favoring factors such as cost savings and efficiency over innovation and attracting nontraditional contractors. In an environment centered around uncertainty, they’re afraid to go out on a limb.

Yet, innovation and nontraditional-ism is exactly what the leadership is, theoretically, hoping for. “We have a real mission problem now, in that we have conflicting objectives,” said Soloway.

And finally, there’s a gap in communication between business schools and the government.

Soloway explained, “Go look at the curricula at the various acquisition schools. They don’t teach business acumen or risk management. They don’t really spend a lot of time on how to acquire and integrate complex technology. So how can we possibly expect this workforce to have those tools?” This sort of knowledge needs to be taught somewhere, and right now, that’s not happening.

These shortcomings basically contribute to the status quo not improving. “As you go through the survey, what you find are the exact same weaknesses that we’ve seen year over year,” explained Soloway. “We’ve done the survey now since 2002, and the same skills-gaps, concerns, and challenges are still the most prominent. So that suggests that we’re making very little progress.”

So, what would Soloway’s remedy for these ills in communication and general performance be? His key pointer here is fundamentally rethinking the workforce’s training. Right now, training programs are being cut back, but that should end. Instead, the field needs to draw in “the best and the brightest” to invigorate morale and performance.

The results from the survey are in, and according to Soloway, they’re not too positive. Rather than bemoan the past, can these findings be effectively communicated to achieve a happier picture next time?

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