How the IRS is blazing TRAILS for acquisition professionals

The IRS is publicly known for making strides in procurement innovation and increasing the use of automation and artificial intelligence. The IRS Chief Procurement Officer, Shanna Webbers, has openly shared the agency’s successes in improving procurement efficiencies, including implementing programs such as Pilot IRS, using robotics process automation to improve data accuracy, and building a predictive modeling application, called Projected Contract Award Date, that forecasts when a contract will be signed. The IRS is now delivering that same innovation in the professional development arena.

Technical solutions and hard skills are necessary but not sufficient

For a contracting specialist to earn a Level I Federal Acquisition Certification—Contracting (FAC-C), they must complete 12 predetermined courses to gain the foundational knowledge necessary for performing at the beginning of one’s career. Over time, by gaining more experience and taking an additional eight formal training courses, the contracting specialist can achieve a Level II and Level III FAC-C. For most contracting specialists across the federal government, the courses taken for certification are often retaken to meet continuous learning requirements, in a never ending “wash, rinse, repeat” cycle. Still, no acquisition office can be successful without a staff that has mastered the concepts taught throughout this series of hard skill courses. It is equally clear that, given the pace of change in today’s world of acquisition, the need to incorporate automated technologies will become increasingly necessary as well. However, the combination of hard skill training and technology alone is also not sufficient to meet the dynamic challenges of federal acquisition.

It’s clear that, in addition to mastery of set rules and familiarity with best practices, federal acquisition professionals need to be able to escape from normal thought patterns, achieving an openness to innovation, thoughtful risk-taking, and strategic thinking that allow them to truly serve as consultants and business leaders for their customers. As resources, both budgets and staffing grow increasingly tight, the hard skills of formal, standardized acquisition training become less sufficient, and new ways of thinking that drive new cultures become increasingly essential.

Expanding the role of the acquisition professional

In June 2021, the IRS Office of the Chief Procurement Officer (OCPO) convened a game-changing program for seasoned acquisition professionals — those with 15-to-25 years of acquisition experience. The Treasury Acquisition Institute Leadership Symposium (TRAILS) is a highly selective program available to any federal acquisition professional. Through an innovative industry partnership, the IRS teamed with Duke University to create TRAILS. Participants start by taking a series of online courses from Duke University’s Adaptive Strategic Execution Program (ASEP), which was developed by Duke Corporate Education and Strategy Execution. It focuses explicitly on building leaders who can master the three domains that influence and define how work gets done: strategy, work, and people.  Following ASEP, students continue the learning journey by participating in an interactive 2-week curriculum focused on leadership, strategic thinking, communication, innovation and emotional intelligence.

Evolution of the TRAILS concept

In 2018, the IRS Director of Procurement Policy Steven Brand identified challenges that are shared across the federal government: training offerings were primarily focused on courses required to obtain a FAC-C and only a small assortment of additional procurement courses were available for continuous learning. It was difficult, if not impossible, to find fresh, enriching content for seasoned professionals in the workforce. Steven saw this challenge as an opportunity to leverage partnerships with government and non-government organizations to strengthen leadership competencies and soft skills for mid-career professionals.

The Treasury Acquisition Institute’s (TAI) mission is to deliver world-class training, education and leadership to enhance professional growth. Courses taught at TAI are open to all federal agencies.  Brand instinctively knew TAI was the perfect conduit to solve this training void.

Brand formed a committee of 11 professionals from across the IRS, including the TAI’s Chief Learning Officer Torrance Chism, to jointly identify a novel solution. The final agenda focused on four themes:

  • Introspection (Examining oneself);
  • Interconnection (Examining roles, risks and relationships);
  • Innovation (The future of procurement — Embracing new challenges and employing new techniques); and
  • Implementation (Activate and graduate — Linking themes and concepts with goals and plans).

The content was delivered in the form of keynote speakers, presentations, workshops, panel discussions and interactive group conversations to share ideas.

Major components of TRAILS and key speakers

By the end of TRAILS, each Trailblazer earned both an ASEP Certificate and a TAI TRAILS Graduation Certificate, which reflects the completion of a dynamic and holistic set of key workshops and seminars.

The Trailblazers came from a variety of federal agencies which directly contributed to bridging gaps and creating a new network of cohorts to tackle future challenges. Agency representation included the IRS, Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Treasury‘s Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization, the U.S. Mint and the Department of Homeland Security.

Feedback from TRAILS attendees

Words such as “transformative,” “engaging” and “thought provoking” were used by the cohorts when describing their experience with TRAILS. While they also indicate the seminar was “rigorous” and “not your average training,” they appreciated the benefit of having attended the symposium, specifically as the TRAILS content facilitates a refinement of their skills when writing Executive Core Qualifications (ECQs) related to leading people and leading change, if seeking Senior Executive Service positions within the federal government.

As many can attest, creating a symposium of this depth is a challenging undertaking. With the President’s declaration of the national emergency concerning the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the TRAILS committee had to regroup from planning for an on-site environment in 2020 to a virtual environment in 2021. Thereafter, with the signing of the Juneteenth holiday, changes to the agenda had to be made at a moment’s notice. All things considered, TRAILS exceeded expectations and the IRS is looking forward to offering it annually: providing fresh, thought-provoking and truly enriching content for seasoned acquisition professionals from across the federal government.

Latonya Bowman is a management and program analyst at the IRS and one of the founding committee members of the TRAILS program.