Understanding acquisition needs key to training workforce, experts say

By Jory Heckman
Federal News Radio

Better understanding of an agency’s specific acquisition needs leads to better training for the acquisition workforce of the future, according to two acquisition experts.

Melissa Starinsky, chancellor of the Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ Acquisition Academy, and Andrew Hunter, director of the Defense Department’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell, spoke to Federal News Radio for the special report, The Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform.

Starinsky said the Acquisition Academy has come a long way since its inception in 2008.

“One of the successes I would say we’re most proud of, that could be replicated or adopted across other agencies, is our Warrior to Workforce program, which is really a way for us to bring our wounded veterans into the field of acquisition, for a career in acquisition.”

The Warrior to Workforce Program, Starinsky said, leverages veterans’ G.I. Bill benefits by bringing them into the academy’s workforce internship program, which she said gives them a strong, solid foundation to perform the acquisition function for federal agencies.

Hunter said the Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell coordinates DoD’s demand for urgent and often unanticipated operational needs. One success story for the acquisition cell was the quick turnaround in supplying mine- resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAPs) to American military forces at the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He said the organization has streamlined the decision-making process for DoD’s highest priority acquisitions.

“It’s kind of an interesting case study, because it shows up some of the challenges that you run into,” Hunter said. “With the MRAPS, for example, one of the chief challenges was just trying to figure out who was empowered to make the decision to say ‘We’re going to make a multi-billion investment to buy a new platform that is similar, in kind, to something that we already have — which was the armored Humvee — and it’s worth it to make the multi-billion dollar investment for the added protection.’ In the case of the MRAPs, it was Secretary [Robert] Gates who put his foot down and said ‘I’m making the decision.’ But we don’t want, as a routine matter, to have the secretary of defense get involved just to make requirements on warfighter requirements.”

Hunter said that his organization, working with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Office of the Secretary of Defense, has figured out an acquisition process that doesn’t always require a go-ahead from the military’s top brass. “That allows us to move around the resources as necessary to get it done,” he said.

Starinsky said the academy has expanded its courses in order to help veterans at different stages in their acquisition careers.

“While we’ve had great success across the board in laying the technical skills foundation that’s needed to be successful in this business, I think we have the opportunity to expand that mid-level curriculum, to allow our workforce to grow in their careers. So we’ve created a significantly expanded curriculum to address that gap,” Starinsky said.

During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, DoD’s Joint Rapid Acquisition Cell had more than 530 validated operational needs. Hunter said these days, it has about 30 to 40 operation needs, one of those being the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons components aboard the ship MV Cape Ray, as per an international agreement.

“Most of our urgent operational needs aren’t off-the-shelf items,” Hunter said. “We have to limit our expectations a bit. We have to deal in mature technology, and so we’re not trying to do full-up development programs.”

Starinsky said the academy is piloting an education program with the Air Force that will give the academy students training and experience from the industry side of the acquisition equation.

“One thing that we hope for is that industry will also develop a better understanding of what it’s like on the government side just by the virtue of the fact that a government employee is sitting with them for 10 months,” Starinsky said. “Developing a better understanding and appreciation, understanding what goes into bid/no bid decisions on the industry side, what levels of proposal reviews have to occur before a proposal is submitted to us — I think it’s really important for us to understand the depths and complexity of what goes on in the industry side.”

Hunter said his organization works under the Defense Federal Acquisition Regulation (DFAR), and he wouldn’t ask for any changes to the existing regulation. Meeting tight deadlines, he said, constrains rapid acquisitions more than anything.

“When you’re involved with rapid acquisition, you’re dealing with urgent needs and schedule becomes a predominant priority, and so everything else becomes secondary to the need to deliver as quickly as possible. And so that means you have to limit your ambitions a little bit sometimes and what you reach for in terms of capability.”

More from the special report, Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform:

After decades of DoD acquisition reform, Congress has yet to tackle cultural issues

31 ideas for reforming DoD contracting

Communication, transparency key to successful procurements

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