Column: Finding answers to a better trained acquisition workforce

Wednesday - 6/13/2012, 5:56am EDT

By Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

(Photo: House.gov)

We have all heard the stories about $16 muffins, $600 hammers and over-priced travel purchased by the federal government. Despite the fact that the "tales of government spending gone overboard" often turn out to be more complicated than the soundbite suggested. They do reflect an underlying reality: The government must have capable people overseeing complex acquisitions to properly steward taxpayers' money.

It is essential to have skilled, capable people acquiring the goods and services necessary to run the government and to serve the American people. Our federal government is the single-largest customer in the world. Between fiscal 2000 and 2008, federal government acquisition spending expanded by 163 percent, from $205 billion to $539 billion. Today, procurement spending is approaching $700 billion.

Federal procurement increasingly reflects complex services rather than just simple goods. It is substantially more difficult to acquire complex engineering and technical training than to purchase office supplies. Services, not supplies, now account for 70 percent of the federal government's spending. Many experts note the need for proper training of acquisition officers concerning the complex and frequently changing federal contracting environment.

While seismic shifts are occurring in the landscape of federal acquisitions, the skills and training of the federal acquisition workforce have remained largely stagnant. This further places agency missions and taxpayer funds at risk. Improving the skills, communication, and experience of the federal acquisition workforce is in everyone's best interest: be it the federal acquisition workforce, the contractors, the government or the taxpayers.

We can begin to improve the acquisition workforce, if we can find answers to two sets of questions.

Two basic questions need answering

First, how do we improve governmentwide leadership in the coordination and development of the federal acquisition professionals?

Defense Acquisition University and the Federal Acquisition Institute play central roles in the training and shaping of the acquisition workforce. But why does the federal government have so many training centers?

Who is coordinating the curriculum between the civilian and military acquisition work force to allow for work force mobility and advancement?

With a clear and defined strategy to train our acquisition workforce, we can coordinate efforts and best practices to ensure they are the best stewards of taxpayer dollars.

Second, beyond leadership and coordination, we must focus on the government's use of tools and advanced capabilities to equip qualified acquisition work force professionals to perform at the highest levels.

Why is there no standardized contract-writing tool throughout the entire government?

Obtaining data on the federal procurement database is unreliable and often deficient. Are there better ways to track and report it?

Fedbizopps.gov is a useful website, but how can we improve it?

Current initiatives are helping, but not enough

We know there are several new initiatives underway to improve the acquisition workforce. Some of these initiatives include: mentoring and intern programs, the use of flexible hiring authority, increases in college recruitment efforts, and improvements within the acquisition workforce career track.

In 2018, 55 percent of the acquisition workforce will be ready to retire. With federal acquisition spending at an all-time high and a looming fiscal cliff on the horizon, our acquisition workforce also needs preparation to make smart, informed decisions that promote continuity where possible and make changes where needed. They need to be the best-trained, best-equipped, and smartest workforce in the country in order to make smart purchasing decisions.

The question will always remain: How can we do this in the best, most efficient way?

Congressman James Lankford (R-Okla.) is chairman of the Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Technology, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and Procurement Reform. Lankford wrote this column as part of the Federal News Radio special report Inside the World's Biggest Buyer.

QUICK LINKS:

Inside the World's Biggest Buyer (Main Page)

Timeline: Congress crafts acquisition policy

Part 1: Agency Acquisition

Part 2: Acquisition Workforce