Acquisition workers as critical thinkers: A change that has to happen

This story is part of Federal News Radio’s special report, “Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform.”

The ever-evolving training regime for federal acquisition workers is no longer just about the hard skills of acquisition.

It’s not that knowing the policy, the regulations and the laws isn’t important. No one would argue that. But acquisition workers need to transform by using soft skills now more than ever to lead successful procurements.

This concept is most evident in version 3 of the Defense Department’s Better Buying Power initiative. One of the key tenets of the effort is the need for critical thinking among acquisition workers.

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This is the idea of contracting officers, program managers and others asking the right questions at the right time. Then, they would take those answers to plan and oversee the contract throughout its entire lifecycle.

“We are trying not to teach people just process, but learn why things happen. Part of that is learning all the stakeholders, their different roles and all the processes they play,” said Jim Woolsey, president of the Defense Acquisition University. “Particularly in the high level classes, we try to get people from different parts of the enterprise together, to work together to solve problems and understand each other’s points of view. We really think that’s increasingly important. We are trying to give more emphasis to that.”

Woolsey said that acquisition workers need to come in with a broad background in business or economics or math or finance or even engineering.

“It’s very typical in trying to solve an acquisition problem to have engineering disciplines who are involved in the technical problem at hand having to work with finance people, logistics professionals as well as the program manager to solve a problem,” he said. “So we try to get them in the classroom working with each other to practice solving these problems before they have to do it in the real case.”

DAU trains more than 800,000 students a year on everything from the basics of acquisition to advanced level three skills.

Near universal agreement on need for improved training

The push for more critical thinking and other soft skills like communication and facilitation is something every agency is hoping to have from their acquisition workers.

As part of our special report “The Missing Pieces of Procurement Reform,” Federal News Radio explores the changing nature of acquisition workforce training.

Many experts believe one of the most immediate and essential changes needed in the federal acquisition environment is an improved workforce.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee recently released a report on acquisition reforms, 22 of the 31 experts surveyed said additional acquisition workforce training is needed. The same percentage also says attracting and retaining a quality workforce is key to improving DoD acquisitions.

The challenge, however, is finding people with the right assortment of skills.

The Office of Personnel Management encourages agencies to hire people with business, economics or math degrees to be contracting officers. But that doesn’t mean they come in with communication skills.

“We focused more on business training. We used to hire more liberal arts and lots of other majors. I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad way to go to bring in diverse people from diverse backgrounds,” said Michael Fischetti, the executive director of the National Contract Management Association, and a former DoD acquisition executive. “You want people who know how to think, how to synthesize information and bring things together. I think we should not limit ourselves to just business majors.”

Jaime Gracia, the president and CEO of Seville Government Consulting, agreed with Fischetti. He said agencies need to do more to hire people with the right skills, including pricing analysis, project management and requirements development.

“The hiring problem is very endemic because we are not hiring the right people to be the part of the acquisition workforce. Right now, it takes a good five to seven years for you to say, ‘Yes, I’m a very proficient contracting officer,'” Gracia said. “To get there, you are being taught the Federal Acquisition Regulations and all of these other things, but I need people who are being hired that have these basic business advisory skills that are really needed to be successful in these positions. I’m talking about economics. I’m talking about math majors, right out of business schools who have these skills already ready to go, and, of course, hiring attorneys is also a great thing to get into the 1102 acquisition workforce. But unfortunately it’s kind of a double-edge sword because you can’t get these positions unless you have this experience, but how do you get position without any experience. The acquisition workforce really has been put into a corner.”

Editor’s Note: Not all federal employees who work in acquisition are 1102s. According to the General Services Administration, there are no reliable government-wide numbers for Contracting Officer’s Representatives (CORs) or Program and Project Managers (P/PMs). Some agencies consider CORs and P/PMs to be temporary titles while someone is working on a particular contract, rather than a permanent job title. GSA estimates there are 58,000 CORs government-wide today and approximately 24,000 acquisition project managers (16,000 in the Defense Department and 8,000 elsewhere). The numbers above, provided by OPM, include only federal civilian employees, excluding those at intelligence agencies, the Postal Service, the White House, and a few others. But, it represents the government’s best estimate on the number of 1102s.

A professional standard?

Gracia and other experts say the Office of Federal Procurement Policy’s recent update of the educational and experience requirements for program and project management, for contracting officer representatives or CORS and for contracting officer is a good start.

But Fischetti said the new training requirements are good, but there is a bigger piece that is missing.

“We are pushing for a professional standard — the adoption of a wide- body of knowledge professional standard that is recognized throughout the entire space. Not just within government, but at the federal level, the local level, we are talking to associations and other government areas,” he said. “At the 50,000 foot level, everyone acknowledges that the body of knowledge, the skillsets required, are the same. If we could get that body of knowledge, that would drive more people into the industry because people, generally, have never heard of that. It’s often their B-choice career, because who grows up in high school or college thinking they want to be a government contract manager? It’s not something that rolls off your tongue. I think if we could drive that demand, universities and schools would respond and I think we would have a huge influx of people majoring and coming out of college with many, many skillsets that today have to be started over and learned once they get on the job.”

Fischetti said more courses or a different curriculum isn’t necessarily the answer to all acquisition training problems.

One way to move toward the professionalization of the workforce is to bring DoD and civilian workforce certifications closer together.

Chuck Williams, the director of product management at Management Concepts, said while further integrating DoD and civilian certification requirements is a good start, agencies need to do more.

“Training is not the solution. It can provide essential knowledge and skill, but if it’s not supported and bolstered by an organized on-the-job training program, mentoring, coaching, then it isn’t going to be effective,” Williams said. “The budget constraints really impede that because the people who would be doing those things are already saddled with contracts. Supervisors are managing contracts and they may even be the more critical contracts so there is a real impact there. Rotational assignments would be great to expand and broaden the knowledge base of the people. That’s not training in the sense of formal training.”

Funding for training reduced

DAU and the Federal Acquisition Institute are getting away from the traditional or formal training.

The two training organizations are working closely together to create new tools and techniques, and, most importantly share resources as both organizations’ budgets get cut.

Woosley said DAU expects to see about a 10 percent budget reduction in fiscal 2015 as compared to 2014.

Over at FAI, Jeff Birch, the acting director, said the institute, which is mainly funded by receiving five percent of all sales from governmentwide IT multiple award contracts, will see a 30 percent budget cut this year.

Birch said FAI recently published its updated 2015 strategic plan, which includes a set of priorities to address new ways to educate the acquisition workforce in light of budget cuts.

“One of the first things we are looking at is we termed this knowledge nuggets. This is where we provide bursts of information at the point of need, and it’s made available 24/7,” he said. “Many of us have seen the talking hand writing on the white board, these are three-to-give minutes and what they will do is provide very targeted, very specific pieces of information.”

Birch said another new initiative is interactive challenges.

He said these are training events that are downloadable to a worker’s phone or other mobile device.

“These are specific training events. These are great examples of just-in-time training,” Birch said. “We are working on two — one on pricing and the other on past performance.”

He said FAI has 24 topics total planned for the online knowledge nuggets.

The third new initiative from FAI focuses on using social media to bring together acquisition and other communities.

“We were looking at ways of what this acquisition open forum would look like. It’s similar to a chat. We don’t want to stifle communication and innovation. We want to foster that,” Birch said. “This is more of an open dialogue, and when we say it’s for the acquisition workforce, the topic will be acquisition workforce driven. It’s not that I have to approve you because you are a contracting officer 1102 or project manager GS-series 801. It’s very open. It could also involve industry so if there is an industry vendor out there that actually supports the government, they can engage in this concept as well. One of the big initiatives at GSA is to foster and build relationships between government and industry just so we can become so much more effective.”

Must remain relevant

Birch said more and more of these new tools should become available in 2015 and 2016.

Woosley said DAU is moving more of its education online as well. He said between two-thirds and three-fourths of all classes are now offered through e- learning.

Woolsey said training and education are critically important, but DAU and others must do a few things to ensure that training remains relevant.

“Whether it’s the better buying initiatives that Mr. [Frank] Kendall has done or the ideas that are coming from the acquisition reform efforts on the Hill, we have to quickly assimilate those and translate them to the workforce. Whatever direction we need to go to make acquisition better, we need to do that better. The way DAU is involved with its customers really helps us do that.

We are part of the OSD organization, we are in with our customers and we can make those things happen quickly,” he said. “The other thing that has to happen is we have to teach people judgment. There isn’t a prescription to a lot of these things. To make things work well, it’s a matter of using the right tools, whether they are the right contracting tools or whatever the situation is. That gets back to the critical thinking. We are trying to teach people the why and not just the what so they know why there are rules, and why some things work better than others.”

And it’s that change that DAU, FAI and many other federal and private sector organizations are striving to create and institutionalize in the acquisition workforce.

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

Acquisition workers as critical thinkers

31 ideas for reforming DoD contracting

Acquisition quiz: True or false?

Why leadership, not Congress, is key to acquisition reform

Successful DoD acquisition programs start with funding for the workforce

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