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Training Day: Improving Skills of the Acquisition Workforce

A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released April 16 indicates that agencies not only face challenges in training the acquisition workforce, they also have difficulty quantifying the costs and benefits obtained from training investments. A well-trained acquisition force translates into a bigger bang for the taxpayer’s buck, a savvy government in a time of strained budgetary resources, and more effective oversight and management of federal contracts. GAO indicates that if agencies lack such a workforce, then the “government is at risk for significant overcharges and wasteful spending of the billions allocated to contracts for goods and services annually.”

The report is based on a questionnaire the GAO administered to 23 civilian agencies that solicited information about the sources each agency uses to provide acquisition training courses, the facilities utilized, budgetary and staffing resources allocated, agency training methods, and the challenges encountered in providing training. Officials at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), the agency charged by statute with establishing policies regarding education, training, and career development of the federal acquisition workforce, and the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI), which supports and assists agencies in providing training programs were also interviewed for the report.

GAO found the following:

  • The current focus of agencies is “to provide courses through which their acquisition workforces may attain or maintain their [Federal Acquisition Certification (FAC)] certifications.” To obtain FAC, an acquisitions professional must complete a minimum set of career-specific courses and meet certain education and experience requirements, and stay up to date on acquisition policies and practices through continuing education programs.
  • The training cost data that agencies provided to GAO “included different cost components, which did not lend themselves to comparative analysis.”
  • 7 agencies had no metrics for monitoring or assessing the effectiveness of their workforce training efforts.
  • 11 agencies indicated that they have trouble identifying members of the acquisition workforce in the first place, because “personnel are dispersed throughout many organizations, come from a variety of career fields, and are often involved in acquisitions as a secondary…duty.”
  • 12 agencies “did not have insight into whether their acquisition workforce training investment is improving individual skills or agency performance.”
  • 15 agencies reported that 75 percent or more of their contracting staff met FAC requirements.
  • 15 agencies reported that 89 percent or more of their contracting officer representatives and program/project managers met FAC requirements.
  • 15 agencies would like assistance from OFPP in either of the following ways: a separate job series for additional acquisition workforce categories, or a government-wide database to track members of the acquisition workforce.
  • 19 agencies stated that it is challenging to obtain sufficient staff to manage training.
  • 20 agencies identified obtaining adequate funding for training as challenging. 10 of those agencies reported that their current acquisition training budgets are insufficient to meet training needs.
  • 20 agencies indicated that they would like to see more course offerings and virtual course options to further aide acquisitions professionals in obtaining FAC.

GAO recommends that OFPP release guidance on the types of costs agencies should include in their annual Acquisition Human Capital Plan submission to “help determine total training investment,” and that OFPP require that all agencies collect participant evaluations of training programs so that agencies can begin to quantify the returns on investment in acquisition training.

Some of the problems highlighted in the GAO report are not new problems. In 2007, OFPP released a report that found the demands on the acquisition workforce had “grown substantially” and that there were “substantial problems with the data available” concerning the workforce.

The OFPP and individual agencies need to address these issues expeditiously. Federal contracting is not going away anytime soon; in Fiscal Year 2012 alone the U.S. government spent $517 billion on all federal contracts. OFPP has said that the acquisition workforce is “an essential key to success in achieving the government’s missions.” We need well-trained individuals to ensure that when the U.S. government spends taxpayer money on contracts, it is spending wisely.

The training issues identified by GAO will only be exacerbated over the next few years as the acquisition workforce grows older. A recent Federal Timesarticle indicates that just over 30 percent of the government’s acquisition professionals will be eligible to retire in the next 5 years, and 13 percent already qualify. The article suggests that incentives to continue working once an employee becomes eligible for retirement are sparse, given the current freeze on federal wages and potential changes to way federal employee pensions will be determined.

While the anticipated turnover could provide a rare opportunity to make improvements to acquisition management, it could also create a situation in which contractors will gain greater control over the procurement process and take advantage of a less experienced acquisition workforce. Ensuring adequate training and returns on training investments, although just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to improving federal procurement practices, is a good place for the government to start.