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Contracting professionals need to travel — and train

Apr. 28, 2013 - 01:06PM   |  
By MICHAEL P. FISCHETTI   |   Comments

No one can forget the image released a year ago of a government executive holding a champagne glass in toast while sitting in a Las Vegas hot tub — paid for with federal dollars. Congressional leaders were rightfully indignant and called for a halt to such events. However, taxpayer costs for government acquisition may now be increasing as a result of overreach policies implemented since then.

The less than $1 million expenditure for the General Services Administration Western Region conference in 2010, wasteful as it was, has evolved, justifying the imposition of far more comprehensive restrictions on the government acquisition community that are not reducing government waste or budget deficits. Though nominal savings come from prohibiting training, travel and public interaction, this is overshadowed by the hidden increased costs caused by gaps in knowledge, business communications and relationships otherwise derived through in-person interactions and learning. A workforce improperly trained or communicating poorly with industry results in badly managed contracts and misunderstandings that cost taxpayers. In a time of increased contracting activity, as agencies realign their budgets to meet deficit reduction targets, it is no surprise that contractor protest activity is up. Nondelivering contracts affect federal budgets more adversely than small short-term agency training cuts.

Today’s government relies on contractors to deliver virtually all services its citizens demand. Reduced federal hiring, training and communication — combined with furloughs, workload and attrition — have severely affected contracting manager productivity. Decreases in overall government contracting dollars are not commensurate with a decreased contracting workload. Restrictive policies on professional development compound the problem.

I hear firsthand about challenges faced by procurement, acquisition and contract management professionals as a result of current policy. I also hear the positive aspect — how we can all work together to resolve, or at least lessen, these issues. Building relationships and understanding is best done through face-to-face communication.

Today’s federal workforce is responsible for the proper spending of more than $1 trillion on contracts, grants and loans. Adequately trained and experienced government (and industry) contract management professionals are essential to operating efficiently. They are responsible for ensuring proper enforcement of myriad laws, regulations and policies. Members of my organization, the National Contract Management Association, take pride in their work to accomplish their mission.

Acquisition guidance today includes a comprehensive system of educational and training requirements to teach our workforce the business acumen, ethical behavior and knowledge of the laws and regulations governing the process they must have.

The Office of Management and Budget recently issued its “myth-busting” memo as part of a 25-point plan addressing misconceptions impeding communication with industry during the acquisition process. It was determined that far too often, there was little meaningful contact with industry during market research. “Industry partners are the experts in what solutions are available in the marketplace,” so OMB encourages “productive interactions between federal agencies and industry to ensure that the government clearly understands the marketplace and can award a contract or order for an effective solution at a reasonable price.”

Additionally, the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which provides guidance for government contracting officers, encourages many avenues of vendor communication. Therefore, OMB has pushed agencies to develop practices that will ensure early, frequent and constructive communication during the acquisition process.

Contracting managers require professional development to stay current, just as accountants, lawyers, educators and other professionals do. Common sense requires that they learn by talking with each other to ensure government requirements are achievable, that arrangements make business sense, that there is a competitive market of sources, and that the solution is technologically sound. Just as one seeks legal advice from a lawyer who has passed the bar exam, federal agencies must support acquisition employees’ involvement in professional activities.

A new Government Accountability Office report highlights the struggles agencies confront in deciding relevant metrics, curricula and funding for acquisition-related training and even which staff should receive training.

One approach I suggest is to encourage more collaboration among government, industry and academia in developing and conducting training based on commonly adopted, competency-based principles. NCMA does this already by developing training aligned with competencies developed by the Defense Acquisition University, as well as our own contract management “body of knowledge,” a uniform standard for all contracting pros. Such development models, common to other professions, must be widely adopted, and that starts by removing today’s training and travel restrictions.

Government and industry acquisition professionals are hardworking and patriotic. They perform vital duties and are dedicated to obtaining a fair and reasonable price for the billions in taxpayer dollars they spend each day, viewing every dollar as if it were their own. We must allow them to develop professionally through NCMA education and mentoring programs that ultimately lower the costs of government. Ë

Michael P. Fischetti is executive director of the National Contract Management Association.

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