With much of the focus on contracting reform aimed at communication between government and industry, some government officials want to make sure front-line contracting feds aren’t overlooked.
Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), said the acquisition workforce isn’t equipped to manage the large number of government contracts. His office wants to change that.
“Our number one priority is strengthening the acquisition workforce,” Gordon said Thursday at a government-industry forum sponsored by AFFIRM in Washington.
Gordon said over the past 15 years the government has been on an unsustainable path of increased contracting and a flat acquisition workforce.
“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,” Gordon said.
The Office of Management and Budget announced Feb. 3 the first year-over-year decline in contract spending since 1997. Gordon said that trend is positive, but on its own won’t be enough to solve the problem with the acquisition workforce.
Last year the president’s budget proposal requested more than $150 million to invest in the acquisition workforce. This year’s request is slightly smaller at around $140 million.
Gordon said despite general support from the Hill, he isn’t optimistic either request will be met.
However, Gordon said agencies can help the existing acquisition workforce by improving internal communication. He said poor communication within agencies leads to significant problems with contract design.
“We have our IT shops that are often focused on sophisticated IT solutions,” Gordon said. “We have the program shops – the people who actually need what the contract is for – who may not be explaining to the IT people what they need properly. We have a contract shop that doesn’t define requirements. They just listen to make sure they’ve got requirements that make sense in terms of ‘will this be a competitive situation’, but contract people can’t define requirements. They need input from the program people and the IT people to do that.”
Gordon also said he wants to increase training for the acquisition workforce. One of OMB’s goals in scaling back contract spending was to reduce the number of high risk contracts such as time-and-materials and labor-hours contracts.
But Gordon said selecting the appropriate type of contract isn’t always simple. Even though fixed-price contracts are considered the safe type of deals, cost-reimbursement agreements make more sense.
“We’re not telling agencies to go fixed-price no matter what,” Gordon said. “Sometimes is just a matter of looking. Have we come far enough that we can define our requirements and switch to fixed price? Then we should. But we shouldn’t switch to fixed price without thinking.”
Gordon said insufficient contract management personnel also is a significant challenge. He said agencies have increased the number of 1102 series positions between 7 – 12 percent but he wants to see even more hiring — especially of contracting officer’s technical representatives (COTRs).
He said when agencies don’t have a COTR, they end up contracting out project oversight instead of doing it themselves.
“Of course we need contractors, but contractors support us in the federal government, which means that we have to be in charge,” Gordon said. “There are too many situations where there is no federal employee that has oversight of what’s going on, or there aren’t enough federal employees so that they maintain control. That is an unbalanced, unhealthy situation.”
But Gordon emphasized the important role of contractors and encouraged agencies to increase dialog with vendors. OMB and OFPP recently launched a mythbusting campaign to educate the federal workforce about rules around contracting.
Gordon said existing Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) allows for broad communications but agencies don’t understand the rules. He said he wants to create an environment in which acquisition officers are comfortable sharing information with industry in order to improve contracts.
“Share information,” Gordon said. “We benefit from that information being shared. We’re not doing it as a favor to industry — we’re doing it to make the procurement system work better. Refusing to share information is foolish, counterproductive, and causes the government to lose.”
Gordon said he conducts monthly calls with senior procurement executives to listen to challenges they face and ideas they have about the educational campaign.
Next month, OFPP will hold a working group of federal acquisition professionals to help design an online community of practice.