Federal acquisition beset by lack of experience and training

Invasive oversight obstructs innovation, says report from PSC and Grant Thornton
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A federal acquisition community still brittle from past austerity measures faces the prospect of new cuts with inadequately trained new staff and a risk-averse culture that proscribes innovation, warns an analysis based on qualitative surveys of federal personnel.

A biennial report (.pdf)  produced by the Professional Services Council and Grant Thornton that's based on interviews with 40 top acquisition officials says a large influx of new workers has brought challenges while experienced workers' retirement rate increases at a significant pace. The PSC is an Arlington, Va.-based contractor association.

Federal training institutions have helped professionalize new workers, but the training needs improvement and training alone is no substitute for experience, the report says. Acquisition workers lack negotiating skills and an understanding of how the private sector identifies and manages risk, it adds.

Competition among agencies for acquisition staff has led to intra-agency bidding wars that have resulted in some personnel promoted too quickly to positions of high responsibility.

One interviewee "mentioned that he sees GS-15s without the requisite experience he expects, 'They are often unqualified, poorly trained and lack proper supervision.'"

An overwhelming percentage of interviewees said front-end planning, such as defining requirements and selecting an appropriate contract type, is a significant area of weakness. One participant said his office is staffed by personnel trained to use orders or simplified procurement structures by rote without further analysis "because that is what they know and that is what they can do quickly."

Intense oversight has had destructive consequences, report authors also say, through its inhibition of innovation and reasonable risk taking. "We have this zero-risk mentality from the oversight community and it has a chilling effect," one interviewee said. Report authors also say that complying with oversight expectations consumes time and resources that could be otherwise spent on better contract management.

A February 2011 Office of Management and Budget memo that sought to address commonly-held agency misconceptions about interactions with the private sector – known as the myth-busting memo – was positively received, but interviewees said more remains to be done in expanding dialogue between government and industry. And, noted one, the underlying fear of protests that causes many federal employees to shun private sector engagement remains in effect.

An era of constrained budgets need not necessarily be damaging, report authors say, but as pressures on the workforce grow, "so too must the creativity and consistency of the responses to those pressures."

For more:
- download the report, "The Balancing Act: Acquisition in an Unabated Crisis"

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