Michael Fischetti is the Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association. (Jenifer Morris)
What’s next for improving our acquisition process? Legislative solutions range from total disestablishment of the current system to drafting comprehensive new replacement legislation and everything in between. There is significant change occurring within some agencies, such as the Department of Homeland Security, along with several recent executive orders and internal organizational initiatives, but nothing else monumental. This reflects the fact that many solutions have been tried, leaving caution as a strategy lest the situation be made worse. Many memos, presentations, papers, studies, and conferences have bemoaned the situation and these conversations continue, with many careers and reputations to be enhanced promoting a variety of management, legislative, and regulatory solutions.
Moving forward first requires accepting inherent differences between commercial versus public contracting. Contracting with public funds involves unique trade-offs; certain strings attached by their authorizing legislative body. Those strings are implemented into government programs and enforced by a professional cadre that must be concurrently mission-oriented, above ethical reproach, and neutral toward the various constituencies involved with taxpayer funds, as well as technically astute, task oriented, possessive of good interpersonal skills, etc. This complicates the process as those strings are built into requirements and enforced through a process affecting the terms of contractor selection and award. Outcomes must be as efficient and effective as possible, including compliance with these (often conflicting) goals.
Toward that end, adopting common professional standards applicable to government and industry might revise today’s fractured, individual employer-based system, where each organization independently defines what knowledge and experience (if any) is required of its contract managers, resulting in an inconsistent, diverse variety of standards throughout the community, ranging from very extensive to none at all. Larger and better-funded entities have more rigorous on-the-job professional development programs, schools, and resources than others. Some rely on hiring away pre-qualified talent from others. With no common standard, as seen in other professions, the current system minimizes contract professional movement between public and private sectors and creates variable levels of quality, communication, and thus program/mission outcomes. Given current government personnel policies, the movement of experienced private sector acquisition professionals into government service becomes extremely difficult beyond the entry level. One such common standard that could be widely adopted is the Contract Management Body of Knowledge, currently being sent to key leaders and organizations for their input. That collective input will form the basis for future refinements and could thus form the basis for common, uniform, professional standards.
The result might be to increase the external candidate pool in government hiring. Every government manager can provide examples of their often inability to hire the contracting leaders or staff of their choice and the hoops required of those professionals seeking government employment. Many good people simply give up. Finding the best person is not always an option unless an advocate on the inside of an agency is working diligently to navigate those hoops for persistent candidates. A higher rate of movement of acquisition professionals between public and private sectors could (1) improve the quality of understanding and communication between public and private sectors required on complex government programs; (2) lessen taxpayer costs resulting from today’s multiple, independent schools and training programs; (3) leverage existing higher education by strategically sourcing government and industry contract management education and certification making it more attractive to colleges and universities and offering a consistent basis to structure academic programs against; and (4) increase the visibility and therefore demand and thus pipeline of high-caliber candidates into government acquisition.