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Acquisition workforce unprepared for challenges of sequestration

Dec. 17, 2012 - 02:20PM   |  
By NICOLE BLAKE JOHNSON   |   Comments

Most federal acquisition professionals are not prepared to quickly renegotiate contracts or handle other responsibilities if automatic budget cuts take effect next month, according to a survey released Monday.

Sequestration — the automatic spending cuts required if Congress and the White House fail to agree on a deficit reduction plan by Jan. 2 — would require acquisition employees to quickly renegotiate, cancel or change the scope of contracts. Of the 40 federal officials surveyed, including senior acquisition executives, contracting professionals, congressional staff and representatives from the oversight community, 60 percent said those skills were weak or nonexistent in the acquisition workforce.

Sequestration “will present a host of issues, such as contract terminations. There is the potential for millions in broken contracts, so this is a critical area,” one survey respondent said.

The challenges of sequestration are part of a larger concern over budget austerity and whether agencies have enough resources and skilled professionals to perform contract management duties, negotiate contract prices and execute complex information technology contracts and other procurements, according to the annual survey by the Professional Services Council and Grant Thornton.

Similar to survey results over the past decade, the latest survey shows federal executives are still concerned about the size of their acquisition workforce, gaps in training and development, and the lack of resources to address skills gaps.

“This should be a big red flag,” Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council trade association, told reporters Monday. There is little to no evidence that these concerns have been adequately addressed over the past decade, he said.

Overall, officials are concerned that tightening budgets will impede or undo progress in increasing the size of the acquisition workforce. “Acquisition workforce numbers are up, but not enough, and fear exists that those increases could be lost by across-the-board budget and workforce reductions,” the survey found.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed said workforce challenges have worsened over the last two years.

Another concern is competition within government for skilled workers.

“The working-level contracting professional has long been a GS-12, but other departments are hiring them away as a GS-13 or 14, and even a 15,” according to one respondent, who was not identified by name in the survey. “They are being bought away. It is a bidding war for talent, and it’s a problem because it is an inherently governmental function and it cannot be augmented by contractors.” In an effort to hang on to personnel, some agencies are promoting people before they are ready.

The survey also highlighted the challenge acquisition employees face in responding to increased reporting requirements and oversight from the Office of Management and Budget, inspectors generals, the Government Accountability Office and the Defense Contract Audit Agency.

While oversight is necessary, there is a concern that increased reporting and frequent auditing have gone overboard and are not adding value, Soloway said. Much of the information is redundant and goes into a file or database where it does not improve outcomes, he said.

Responding to these requests increases the workload for an already inexperienced workforce and it makes the workforce more focused on meeting requirements than taking some risks and being innovative.

“We have this zero-risk mentality from the oversight community and it has a chilling effect,” one survey respondent said. “Contracting officers need to be able to make smart decisions for the taxpayer and this zero-risk/zero-tolerance mentality from the oversight community is coming at the worst possible time.”

Officials from OMB, the General Services Administration, and the Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments were among those surveyed.

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