Contractors have adapted relatively well to the changing landscape

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It may be slow to change, and cluttered like a baroque Christmas tree, but the federal acquisition and contracting apparatus in the government has proven surprisingly adaptable. That’s a chief finding in the every-two-years survey conducted by the Professional Services Council. With details, the council’s Executive Vice President and Counsel, Alan Chvotkin, joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Alan, let’s start with who do you ask about this for the annual acquisition survey.

Alan Chvotkin: This is a survey of federal acquisition executives, those charged with the front line, the chief acquisition officers, but we also talked to oversight activities such as congressional staff, some of the inspectors general or Government Accountability Office officials as well. So it’s all about the federal government, nothing about the contractors in this survey.

Tom Temin: Alright. And what this showed from the results is that COVID-19 was probably the biggest effect that they face over the last year.

Alan Chvotkin: We have no question about it. It predominated the answers. While there were five broad themes, the number one thing was the operational resilience, and the workforce adaptability all associated with contracting and the whole acquisition process. So even though most of the contracting officials that started that calendar year were unsure and working from home and having to adapt, ultimately, they were very pleased, the senior leaders were very pleased with the adaptability and the ability to get the work done. Very little hiccups in execution. And that was both rewarding and not surprising.

Tom Temin: But the same acquisition workforce wasn’t all that impressed with how well it as a workforce had improved much in the last couple of years.

Alan Chvotkin: No, that’s right. Workforce skills, the recruiting of the next leaders, the retention, still a challenge. And this is still a unique world to work in and finding people, recruiting them, retaining them, still a challenge. So we’ve surveyed actually over the almost the last 10 years that change year over a year or two year over two years experience on the workforce. This year, they were less disappointed, but regrettably, we’re not seeing significant progress in senior leaders view of the overall capabilities of the workforce.

Tom Temin: And I guess the other finding that’s important is that most of them don’t see the budget situation easing up and maybe getting a little worse for themselves in the next couple of years.

Alan Chvotkin: Well, that’s right. And budget to congressional appropriations, less presidential budget, but congressional appropriations drive programs, programs drive contracting activities, and then of course, that drives work for the industry. And so the continued instability in the budget process has an enormous effect on the planning for acquisitions, as well as on the execution. And so again, this year, the budget realities that they become accustomed to it, because the continuing resolutions and not knowing what the funding streams are going to be until late in the calendar year, and often well into the first quarter as we are now are the new normal, if you will. But it’s still disruptive. And so the concerns about the continuing resolutions are being used to have an impact on overall acquisitions.

Tom Temin: On the positive side though, people that you surveyed felt that communication and the improvement of communication was on the rise.

Alan Chvotkin: That’s right. That was another important finding. And I think that COVID-19 had something to do with that. With that many of the government agencies are using the new tools, new communications tools, new collaboration tools, that I find they’re much more almost more accessible now. And instead of taking two hours to go into a government facility and wait and check in and go through security for half an hour meeting, we do that much more efficiently on the phone or through one of the collaboration platforms. That’s true of communication also improving within the agencies. And I think that’s a positive sign, that’s important. There’s more work that can be done. I sound like a Government Accountability Office report here, but the ability to both the desire for better communications, and the experience is rewarding.

Tom Temin: And the other survey that you are out with is the CIO survey. Tell us the top line findings of your survey of federal CIOs.

Alan Chvotkin: Well, again, we do this annually, but not every other year. And we just released yesterday our 2020 CIO survey. Some of the similar themes that we had with the acquisition, which is the role of the COVID-19, and the resilience from the IT workforce, budget issues and challenges. But this year, the use of emerging technologies and the growth in the use of emerging technologies was a fairly dominant theme from the CIOs that this is an extra way of being able to execute their work, not necessarily the object of their contracting. And so that was that was valuable to hear as well.

Tom Temin: And what did the CIOs tell you about modernization? Which is pretty much the catch word that’s dominated for the last couple of years.

Alan Chvotkin: Yeah, there’s no question that they see success in the acceleration, the IT modernization effort, even though even in the face of the pandemic, in fact, many of the modernization successes are probably as a result of that agencies had to modernize quickly provide new tools to federal officials in order to cope with the changing workforce dynamics. And so that that was one of those silver linings of another wise, difficult work environment to see. We also saw, as a result of that activity, an increase in the security posture of the of the IT systems. And agency heads that we talked to, the CIOs, frontline officials all viewed the increase in security as another benefit to the iIT modernization to accommodate the COVID-19 workplace.

Tom Temin: And we talked about communication among contractors and the acquisition workforce. What did the CIO say about their communications and the efficacy of it and the outlook for it?

Alan Chvotkin: Well, here again, note, the ability to talk both within the government and between government and industry is growing. The better communications was recognized as a critical need. And I think the the survey participants all acknowledge that they thought they were doing a better job of this. Again, as I mentioned, with respect to the acquisition policy survey, this is all about government. This is no interviews or perspectives from the industry side. So we were pleased to see federal officials talking about the need for better communications, both within agencies and with government. But they saw a significant improvement this year in that communications activity.

Tom Temin: Well, the survey next year then we will have had at least some part of a year of a new administration. So it’ll be interesting to see what the CIOs say then. I guess some of them are politically appointed, some are senior executives — so it’s going to be a different mix by this time next year.

Alan Chvotkin: Very much so. And no doubt as heads of departments and agencies change, priorities change. We didn’t see this year, it’s too hard to interpret what’s not there. But we didn’t hear much this year about organizational design. I think most of the CIOs seem to be comfortable that they have a seat at the table. I hope that will continue in the new administration, I have every reason to believe it will. Even those that are politically appointed in the current administration felt comfortable in their roles and responsibilities and their engagement across their organizations. That’s a positive sign. And I hope that will continue as we do the 2021 survey as well.

Tom Temin: And we should say this is your last appearance on the show as a representative of the Professional Services Council, you will be moving on, you’ve been doing this a lot of years — but no truth to the rumors that you’ll be donning an apron and greeting at Walmarts.

Alan Chvotkin: Well, thank you Tom. That’s right after 19 years at the Professional Services Council, I’ll be leaving at the end of this calendar year. So I’m looking forward to the next opportunity and there’s absolutely no truth to the rumor that I’ll be a greeter at Walmart, although it has some appeal. I’ve been in the government contracting world for over 35 years. But I think there’s still some some skill left in me and some capability left in me, so I’m looking forward to my next assignment. I’ll be sure to keep you informed.

Tom Temin:  Alright, and we know how young at heart you are. Alan Chvotkin is executive vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council. Thanks so much.

Alan Chvotkin: Always a pleasure Tom, and happy new year to you.

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