VA forming cadre of specially-trained acquisition workers

Tuesday - 7/1/2014, 10:56am EDT

Ford Heard, Associate Deputy Assistant Secretary for Procurement Policy, Systems and Oversight, Veterans Affairs

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The Veterans Affairs Department is recognizing and rewarding the success of its acquisition workers.

VA is professionalizing the acquisition workforce in a way comparable only to the Defense Department.

"We are establishing a professional acquisition corps in order to provide the benefits to VA by having a very specified cadre of highly-trained contracting officers and program managers who have a demonstrated history of high performance, and are qualified to lead VA's most critical and high visibility programs and procurements," said Ford Heard, VA's associate deputy assistant secretary for Procurement Policy, Systems and Oversight and deputy senior procurement executive, during an interview on Federal News Radio's In- Depth with Francis Rose Monday.

"From a VA perspective, we are basically a soup to nuts organization as far as what is being procured in VA. Not only is it IT. Not only is it high professional quality healthcare services, but all the facility management requirements that anyone of our healthcare facilities would utilize. So, what we are actually doing is building this acquisition corps to really benefit veterans in the service we offer, and the opportunities for our employees to advance and receive training that they would not normally get under past circumstances."

Ford Heard (VA Photo)

And it makes sense for VA to go in this direction as it spends $17.5 billion a year on goods and services. VA is the second largest government agency buyer, only behind the Defense Department.

VA is not alone in putting more energy and resources behind its acquisition workforce.

Training and education, and the retention of acquisition workers remain the biggest challenge and priority for federal chief acquisition officers, according to a new exclusive survey by Federal News Radio.

Federal News Radio surveyed about 120 senior acquisition professionals and received a response rate of 15 percent response rate. Just under half of the respondents were from small agencies, while the other half was split evenly between large and cabinet level agencies.

As part of our annual look at CXO priorities, a majority of the chief acquisition officers, deputy CAOs and other senior level acquisition managers who responded said having the right people with the best skills is driving their 2014 agenda.

"The workforce continues to experience a great amount of stress and pressure in light of a growing demand for performance and increasing compliance requirements — but remains valued by and dedicated to agency missions," wrote one respondent.

Another said, "Acquisition functions will continue to suffer and deteriorate until there is a return to educating our workforce on the basic fundamentals of acquisition and contract management and provide them with a workplace where they are allowed and expected to make tough decisions. There is too much emphasis on contract award and not enough on post-award contract management. The expectations of quality from pre- award to contract closeout need to be reinstated."

Heard said he wasn't surprised by what his colleagues called their biggest priorities and challenges.

Since 2008, VA has increased its focus on training and education for its acquisition workers through its Acquisition Academy. Heard said the acquisition corps and a new program management framework builds on that training effort.

Heard said VA will launch both programs later this year.

"We are in the process now in identifying positions that will be part of the Acquisition Corps," Heard wrote during an online chat with Federal News Radio after his on- air appearance. "Also, based on qualifications (training, education, and experience), we are identifying those individuals now who qualify for induction into the Corps."

Heard said VA is building off of the recent changes to the qualifications for program and project managers outlined by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in December.

He said these experts will work on specific programs and projects to ensure they meet their cost, schedule and performance goals.

In the survey, 60 percent of the respondents said they are increasing training for acquisition workers, while 20 percent said they are cutting and 20 percent said they are seeing no change in the amount of training these employees receive.

Despite concerns over training, CAOs, more broadly, said they are finding qualified candidates to fill program management or contracting officer positions some or most of the time. About a third of the respondents, however, said they are hiring fewer acquisition workers in 2014 than in the previous two years.

"Qualified based on years of experience and FAC training — yes. Qualified based on actual competencies, critical thinking skills, and performance — much harder to find," wrote one respondent to the survey.

It's no surprise that this lack of training and staff resources is concerning to CAOs.

One respondent said, "No budget to hire additional staff, yet workload and complexity is increasing."

Another said, "Fewer staff members, but the mission has increased."

A majority of the respondents also said the Obama administration hasn't paid enough attention to the acquisition workforce.

One respondent said the focus needs to be at the agency level because that's who is making more of the buying decisions.

Aside from training and workforce challenges, Heard said VA is becoming more aggressive in vendor oversight. He said the department's use of suspension and debarment is up by 223 percent between 2011 and 2013.

"That's a lot. We take our authority very seriously. In fact, VA also has a unique mission for fraud in the service- disabled veteran owned small business and veteran owned small business program as well. That's probably one of those areas where we are seeing those increases," he said. "We also use it to educate our contracting workforce on some of these areas where we are seeing these problems develop throughout VA acquisition."

More generally speaking, CAO respondents were split over their use of suspension and debarment. Half of all those who answered the survey said their agency is not making greater use of these oversight tools, while 42 percent said they were suspending and debarring more vendors.

Suspension and debarment is one of several tools available to CAOs.

A majority of the respondents said the prices paid portal under development by OFPP and the General Services Administration will help them make better decisions, but they'd also like to see tools in different areas.

"Standardized contract writing system across all civilian agencies that feed into a common data repository," wrote on respondent to the survey.

Another said, "One procurement/finance system that is integrated and used throughout government. Tools for contract close-out which is an administrative nightmare, and honestly, is being avoided by most agencies."

Heard said one concept or tool VA is trying to use more is strategic sourcing.

He said they are taking advantage of their size to get lower in how they buy high- tech medical equipment and other medical supplies, and pharmaceuticals.

In fact, Heard wrote during the online chat that VA's Technology Acquisition Center (TAC) is developing a follow up acquisition strategy for the Transformation 21 Total Technology (T4) program.

Heard didn't offer any specifics around timeframe or plans, but the $12 billion T4 contract expires in June 2016.

Going back to the survey, 85 percent of the respondents said they are using strategic sourcing as often as possible or when it makes sense. The biggest reason for using this approach is cost savings, according to 66 percent of all respondents.

"As a priority — strategic sourcing makes sense so long as the approach is balanced and easy to implement," said one respondent.

Another said, "Again, the focus should be on all elements of supply chain management and not just the area of strategic sourcing."

Overall, Heard and his fellow executives had mixed feeling about the overall state of procurement.

Heard said VA, like most agencies, is looking for qualified candidates to help meet their mission.

One respondent offered this observation: "As an acquisition community we need to manage forward and NOT be dragged down by the Band-Aid fixes of the past. The divisiveness in government today is counterproductive to uniting the acquisition community and cultivating an environment of innovation. Everyone has settled in for ‘low risk.'"

Another offered this reflection, "Simply that we are overwhelmed with immediate policies, executive orders not implemented in the Federal Acquisition Regulations, reporting requirements and new mandates. We cannot train on the existing requirements, let alone incorporate the new ones as we are primarily required to award contracts. We cannot staff a full time policy person. What we need a truly reliable statistics on what is required for procurement and then agencies should be mandated to staff that way. Right now there is no efficiency testing and government-wide, procurement is suffering."

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