Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association. (Jenifer Morris)
The need for additional staff resources is the most frequently cited response to improving government contracting. In recent years, considerable resources have been invested in hiring and educating our biggest asset, human capital. This additional staffing and education has so far met with mixed results. This is because people are only as effective as the experience and education they have received.
Contracting executives frequently mention the need to develop judgment, reasoning, and analytical skills, as well as to obtain real-world experience. These goals can be met through exposure to diverse acquisition and operational scenarios. Three years of varied contracting experience (simplified acquisition, major systems, source selection, and acquisition planning) is better than 10 years of doing the same, simplified, repetitive tasks over and over, yet still moving up the career ladder. When that situation occurs, specialists get up to senior levels but with limited experience and knowledge, inhibiting their ability to assume the leadership responsibilities they were intended to. This occurs because agencies want to fill their positions, even though most applicants did not have the opportunity to obtain the necessary variety of experience, which may require moving from one position to another. Many smaller agencies cannot offer internships or rotations to round out their experience because of the limited nature of their acquisition mission. In some cases, the agency or firm has the overall resources, but is not organized to manage professional development.
However, there is a way this varied experience can be developed—through scenario-based learning and testing. This involves providing present and future acquisition specialists the ability to develop their skills on the simulator faster and less expensively before being thrown into real-world situations. Schools are increasingly relying on this technique, as well as professional associations that offer certification programs.
Effective contract management doesn’t involve memorizing policies and regulations. To no one’s surprise, regardless of legislation, business judgment and skills are best learned on the job or via the next best thing: scenario-based training. Professional certifications require the ability to know where to find the various and often conflicting sources of guidance on a particular problem and weigh the merits of all in arriving at a balanced and proper business solution. Rigorous testing that most pass, but many may fail, ensures good judgment is developed before its applicability to real-world situations.
No one wants to fly in an airplane or be subject to surgery unless the pilot or physician has practiced beforehand. When we hire an attorney, we expect he or she has graduated from an approved law school. Chief finance officers are Certified Professional Accountants—no one expects the examinations and qualifications they possess to be easily obtained.
A profession that develops itself exclusively through passive class time, guaranteeing successful completion to everyone, is no better than maintaining existing business processes because “that’s the way we’ve always done it,” or “because I said so.” A rigorous, widely adopted, professional development process, combining education with “practical exams” for every government and industry organization must exist in today’s complex and collaborative acquisition system. Government and industry executives and our citizens must rely on a developed and sophisticated business cadre with the skill set (knowledge, experience, work habits, and ethics) to ensure the best decisions are made for their organizations in today’s business environment.
This is the challenge of today’s acquisition system. While impetus can be given by top legislative and executive leaders, this challenge won’t be met by statutory acts or agency and company memos and presentations; it requires continuous, multiple, iterative solutions throughout the entire government contracting community, with total buy-in from all involved. We must give professional contract managers wide, practical experience to hone their business judgment. This comes through diverse, on-the-job, or tested scenarios, but it will ultimately create the seasoned workforce corps necessary to address the immensely challenging needs of today’s government. Those needs will be met through not just effective, but excellent government contract manager professional development.