Every year, the Department of Defense spends roughly $300 billion to purchase everything from nuclear submarines to accounting services. The defense acquisition workforce is responsible not only for negotiating prices, enforcing requirements, and managing delivery on these acquisitions, but also for addressing issues like interoperability, sustainability, cyber protection, and supply chain security.
And every year, Congress adds complexity to the system, with almost 250 provisions of acquisition legislation changing the rules on types of contracts, contract audits, source selection criteria, commercial items acquisition, data rights and intellectual property, and other issues from 2016 to 2018 alone.
Advocates of acquisition reform have long sought changes in the civil service rules to make it easier to build the talent that the Pentagon needs to meet this challenge, but despite the wide array of legislative authorities now available, little has changed. What is needed is not a new set of rules, but a new mindset: If the Department of Defense wants to develop employees rather than just manage them for immediate performance, it must stop making hiring decisions position by position and establish a system that enables it to rotate future civilian leaders through a series of time-limited, career-building assignments. Instead of managing civil service positions, the Department must start managing its people.
The Call for Civilian Personnel Reform
Sixteen years ago, the National Commission on the Public Service (known as the “Second Volcker Commission”), reported that the federal government was not adequately staffed to meet the demands of the 21st century. Instead of attracting talent, the federal government too often drives it away. “Those who enter the civil service,” the commission reported, “often find themselves trapped in a maze of rules and regulations that thwart their personal development and stifle their creativity. The best are underpaid, the worst, overpaid. Too many of the most talented leave the public service too early, too many of the least talented stay too long.”
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