House panel probes DoD's acquisition workforce

Thursday - 7/10/2014, 6:14pm EDT

Improving and empowering the Defense Department's acquisition workforce is one of the keys to making sure Pentagon procurement reform stays on track, according to top acquisition and personnel officials who testified before the House Armed Services Committee Thursday.

The size of DoD's civilian acquisition workforce has grown by some 20,000 employees over the past five years and now numbers about 135,000 personnel members, according to Stephanie Barna, acting assistant secretary of Defense for Readiness and Force Management.

Civilians make up 90 percent of the department's total acquisition workforce. The military component of the acquisition workforce also ticked up by about 2,500 employees, reaching more than 16,000 employees, Barna said.

That's all thanks to an effort by DoD begun in 2009 to recapitalize its acquisition workforce — to put more focus on the people that power the Pentagon's procurements.

But the department's focus on the acquisition workforce has been strained by a slew of competing priorities and congressionally-mandated belt-tightening, Barna said.

"The fiscal challenges, shifting operational requirements, the current budget instability deriving from sequestration, years of pay freezes, furloughs, military end-strength reductions and the requirement for commensurate reductions in our civilian workforce, more than a decade of conflict — inevitably all of these things have affected the acquisition workforce," Barna said.

DoD to use 'plethora' of tools to keep workforce engaged

Barna said DoD's personnel office would work closely with acquisition officials, such as Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Frank Kendall — who testified alongside Barna — to make sure DoD managers have "ready access" to a variety of human-resources tools to continue to recruit and retain a high-quality acquisition workforce.

Lawmakers wanted to know if DoD has enough tools to keep the acquisition workforce staffed up and the types of incentives to drive better acquisition outcomes.

"Everybody agrees people are the key," said Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), vice chairman of the committee. "If you're in industry, there are tools that they have like bonuses and so forth to encourage behavior and decision-making that they want to see. ... But if you're a civilian program manager today in the Department of Defense, what are the tools that the supervisor or the system has, to encourage or to reward good performance?"

Barna said DoD has a "plethora" of tools at its disposal.

"And when I look at the statistics, the acquisition community is using them well and using them often," she added.

For example, relocation bonuses and retention bonuses are widely available to DoD's procurement professionals courtesy of the the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund (DAWDF), Barna said.

Another frequently used tool is the student-loan repayment program, which reimburses program managers up to $10,000 a year — with a ceiling of $60,000 — to cover their tuition expenses.

Student-loan repayments account for about 40 percent of all incentives paid for by the development fund.

Budget not only to blame

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), however, suggested many of the issues with the acquisition workforce run much deeper than the current budget squeeze.

"This isn't an indictment of the acquisition workforce — and I don't mean it this way — but before sequestration, before pay freezes, before budget uncertainty, we had acquisition problems. ... We were having these problems in the 2000s when there was certainly no budget uncertainty in the Department of Defense."

Larsen wants to know what else DoD and Congress could do to stabilize the gains made by the Pentagon.

"I think flexibility in managing the workforce is important to us," Kendall said, citing the AcqDemo demonstration project in the department, which has piloted a number of flexible options for onboarding and training acquisition pros.

"A lot of what we need to do with the workforce is cultural and it's chain-of- command management throughout the structure," he said, including a greater recognition of the workforce itself.

"We need to make it clear how important acquisition people are to us, how valued they are," Kendall said. "We need to reward them for what they do. ... We want people to aspire to take leadership positions in acquisition and to feel that they have accomplished something when they get to one of those positions."

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