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The solution to procurement woes, people?

Hiring is one of the biggest challenges in government. Getting the right people in the right position is key for an effective government. Just as hiring the right NIH scientist is key to curing disease so too is hiring the right procurement official. However, well-trained procurement officials are hard to find and the lack of skilled personnel leads to contracting failures like healthcare.gov and the Coast Guard’s Deepwater contract.

In part one of our interview, with the authors of the book Complex Contracting, Trevor Brown and David Van Slyke told the DorobekINSIDER that creating strong regulations and relationships is only half the battle when it comes to implementing complex contracts.

Trevor Brown, Interim Director of the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at The Ohio State University. David Van Slyke is the Louis A. Bantle Chair in Business and Government Policy at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Service. Brown told Chris Dorobek that the future of contracting depends largely on the training the next generation of procurement officials.

The complex contracting stuff is tricky, but there are examples of where it has worked. For example, the Department of Defense has been successfully buying aircraft carriers in the US for a hundred years. Those types of procurements are essential for the Department of Defense to accomplish its mission across the globe. Part of the problems is a function of experience. A lot of times agencies that go for a high value target like healthcare.gov enter into a territory where they don’t have a lot of experience. The Coast Guard, for example in Deepwater, had never purchased anything on that scale before. They did not have the expertise, infrastructure and the experience that its brethren in the Department of Navy had. Similarly, in healthcare.gov, on the one hand it was a very unique experience because it moved procurement out of the managerial side of the shop and they ran it out of the political side of the White House. They were worried about all those experimental stakeholders. They failed to heed the lessons that if you are going to buy a complex product then you have to manage the complex project as much as you do managing the political environment in which the procurement takes place,” said Brown.

Workforce challenges?

“A strong workforce is absolutely critical to achieving any acquisition goal. If there is one key ingredient here for success over the future, it is attracting more people into the procurement field. The folks we have in government are really top notch. They are highly trained and skilled. As the government buys more and more complex stuff, they need to be constantly upgrading their skills and knowledge. The folks I have met in the procurement community are really committed to doing that. The problem is there are not enough of them. The pace of training entry level folks is not sufficient given we have a human capital crisis. The federal government is not going to get out of the business of buying stuff. One of the things that the government needs to keep buying is the people to manage that process,” said Brown.

Making the regulations work for the procurers

“The expertise of having that experience and that capacity is important. Also, it is important to be able to use regulations and requirements on how to do work processes and procedures that make good sense and adapt to changing times and products and services. This is where the Federal Acquisition Regulation also has to change as those capacity needs change. The regulations need to change as the acquisitions become more complex. We want people to think more analytically instead of asking themselves, ‘did I check this box?’”said Van Slyke.

Biggest lesson learned?

  • “An ineffective implementation of some of the rules and a fundamental lack of understanding between the two parties are the biggest issues. One of those pieces of understanding is really an awareness and an uncertainty about the product and that they require specialized investments. You can develop good and well crafted rules that promote cooperation, but it is hard to get that cooperation without a relationship built on thinking about each partner,” said Van Slye.
  • “This is as much a leadership responsibility as it is anything else. Both healthcare.gov and Deepwater and lots of the other complex procurements, a lot of the challenges start with the core of the organization. Procurement is not a back office function. If you are buying you need to be managing. There needs to be a recognition from the top of an organization on down that if you are going to buy a complex product that is designed to fulfill key mission requirements you need to integrate procurement into the core of your organization,” said Brown.

” In this interview, we have highlighted the places where acquisitions haven’t worked. There are lots of examples where it has worked in the federal government. By and large for all the simple stuff that the federal government buys, they do an exceptionally good job of protecting the taxpayer dollars. The procurement system for simple stuff is really remarkable,” said Brown.

For part one of our interview: Why are large procurements so complex? Healthcare.gov vs. Deepwater

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Darrell Hamilton

You touched lightly on a key part of the “people” issue and that is the training that is required. I help teach the DoD acquisition process and I have observed the non-DoD side of the equation too. The other side does not invest anywhere near the time and dollars into training as DoD does. DoD realized a long time ago that you can hire all the best and brightest out of industry or out of college and that will still not be enough. The government has some unique issues that make the process both easier in some ways and harder in others. And you can not learn all of the nuances in a 2 year internship. To succeed, you need the right people and you need to expect to train them for years and decades. The trainers need to be the cream of the crop too (which is what DoD does) and not the people who just couldn’t make it elsewhere. From an educational perspective, DoD spends a fortune on training. From a percentage of what is spent on procurement, our training budget is just a drop in a rather large pool. The non-DoD acquisition teams may need to review just how much or how little they are spending on training and also who they are putting into the training postions.