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Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson November 3, 2011

Some progress, but much work remains

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised to "restore the government's ability to manage contracts, by rebuilding our contract officer corps."

The backdrop of this promise is a rapid escalation in the amount of federal spending without a similar increase in the federal employees to oversee those contracts. That can lead to inefficiencies, waste and fraud.

According to the Government Accountability Office, "federal civilian agencies' acquisition spending increased in real terms from $80 billion to $138 billion between fiscal year 2000 and fiscal year 2008, while their acquisition workforce grew at a considerably lower rate. Furthermore, 55 percent of the current acquisition workforce will be eligible to retire in 2018 -- more than twice the number eligible in 2008 -- which creates potential future skill shortages."

The issue has received strong rhetorical support from key federal procurement officials, particularly Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Gordon is scheduled to depart his post soon to teach at George Washington University.

"Our number one priority is strengthening the acquisition workforce," Gordon said at a forum in February 2011, according to Federal News Radio. "Putting that tsunami of spending onto an acquisition workforce that had shrunk and wasn't getting the investment and training was a recipe for problems, and we've had a good number of problems."

There have been some tangible increases. For instance, Gordon said that agencies have increased one type of contract officer position by 7-12 percent, Federal News Radio reported.

In addition, the Duncan Hunter National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2009 included a provision, known as section 869, that requires "actionable" five-year plans for agencies to increase the size of their acquisition workforce. OMB issued this plan for civilian agencies on October 27, 2009, requiring each covered civilian agency to deliver an annual report starting March 31, 2010. It also required agencies to address acquisition workforce needs in their annual budget submissions.

"While OMB's plan does not address all statutory matters, it nevertheless has initiated a process that provides an opportunity to increase the capacity and capability of the civilian agencies' acquisition workforce," GAO concluded.

There have been stumbles. Version 3.0 of the website -- the federal government's main job-application tool, and the primary point of entry for future contract officers  -- has been hurt by technical problems, according to InformationWeek. And the growing troubles surrounding Energy Department stimulus funds -- particularly the roughly $500 million in federal funds lent  to the solar energy firm Solyndra -- suggest the need for expert oversight of government spending.

Gregory H. Friedman, the Energy Department"s inspector general, testified before a House subcommittee that the need to distribute billions in stimulus funds strained federal, state and local officials. According to Friedman, the Energy Department fell short in documenting and minimizing risks involved with the stimulus loan guarantees.

Despite the shortcomings, federal procurement experts agreed that the administration has made some strides in improving and expanding the contract officer corps.

"There is no question that the government is trying to achieve the goal -- DOD has hired several thousand new acquisition personnel in recent years -- but they all have a long way to go," said Stan Z. Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, a trade group that represents private businesses that service federal agencies.

Many of the new hires are "interns," which in government parlance is a fully paid position designed to mentor new hires into their field, Soloway said. "This means we are years away from their being experienced enough to fill some of the already evident, and potentially growing, gaps," Soloway said. "This has remained a priority of the administration from Day One. They just haven"t gotten there yet."

Steven L. Schooner -- a George Washington University law professor and a former associate administrator at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy -- agreed. "At a minimum, the administration has stopped the bleeding and, to some extent, reversed the trend, but there's no way they can claim credit for a successful 'rebuilding" yet."

This combination of progress with incomplete achievement points us to a rating of Compromise.

Our Sources

Government Accountability Office, "The Office of Management and Budget's Acquisition Workforce Development Strategic Plan for Civilian Agencies," April 23, 2010

Office of Management and Budget, "Memorandum for Chief Acquisition Officers, Senior Procurement Executives, Chief Financial Officers and Chief Human Capital Officers," Oct. 27, 2009

Washington Post, "Energy Department couldn"t manage stimulus money, watchdog says," Nov. 2, 2011

Federal News Radio, "GAO: Federal acquisition workforce needs help," April 29, 2010

Federal News Radio, "OFPP, OPM join forces to recruit acquisition workers," Feb. 11, 2011

Federal News Radio, "OFPP zeroes in on acquisition workforce," Feb. 18, 2011

Federal News Radio, "OFPP's Gordon not stymied by bumps in the road to acquisition reform," July 20, 2011

InformationWeek, " Website Problems Continue," Oct. 24, 2011

E-mail interview with John M. Palguta, vice president for policy at the Partnership for Public Service, Nov. 2, 2011

E-mail interview with Stan Z. Soloway, president and CEO of the Professional Services Council, Nov. 3, 2011

E-mail interview with Steven L. Schooner, a George Washington University law professor, Nov. 3, 2011

By Alex Holt January 13, 2010

Early steps for a difficult problem

During the 2008 campaign, Barack Obama promised to "restore the government's ability to manage contracts, by rebuilding our contract officer corps."

This promise is most likely associated with an influential 2007 commission report that said "acquisition failures in expeditionary operations urgently require a systemic fix of Army contracting." Expeditionary operations include the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. One of the key recommendations the commission made was to vastly increase the number of contracting officers.

In the 2010 Defense budget proposal, Defense Secretary Robert Gates proposed hiring 9,000 additional full-time employees specializing in procurement by 2015.

However, the reality on the ground makes this proposal difficult to fulfill. There are many procurement vacancies already not being filled in the DoD and the armed services.

The biggest problem is that people experienced in government procurement get paid much more in the private sector than they do in the military or the Pentagon. The Air Force recently announced $20,000 bonuses each year for four years to experienced contracting officers in an effort to get them to stay in the military.

Compounding the problem, as more people leave for the private sector, more of the burden falls on those who stay. Many of those same officers have to go on overseas rotations, which entices them to go for the higher-paying job at home.

In recent congressional testimony, Steven Schooner, co-director of procurement law at George Washington University Law School, said the Gates plan was unrealistic and would not solve the current problems. He said the only way to keep up is to hire more private contractors. Larry Farrell, a retired Air Force general on the same panel, pointed out that "over the next five years nearly 50 percent of the acquisition work force will be eligible for retirement."

While the Obama administration has taken steps to create and retain contracting professionals, it remains to be seen whether these efforts are enough. We're rating this In the Works.

Our Sources

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