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 August 2009 

Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret)Acquisition Work Force Reform Will Require Steady Commitment

August 2009 

by Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell, Jr., USAF (Ret) 

Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced a program to improve the capacity and capability of the Pentagon’s acquisition work force by converting 10,000 contractor positions to government jobs, as well as hiring 10,000 more public servants by 2015.  

The budget request for fiscal year 2010 would fund 4,100 new positions.

Officials said that the department’s goal is to restore the organic work force to its 1998 level of approximately 147,000 personnel.

This is a complex task with no easy fix. And it is not just a question of "in-sourcing" work. The major issue is that there are too few government acquisition personnel with critical skills such as systems engineering, program management, contract oversight, cost estimating, and others.

Recently documented substandard performance of major defense acquisition programs in cost and schedule is a reflection of these inadequacies.

Success will require clear policy and a long-term commitment.
Bolstering the current acquisition corps is especially daunting when one considers that 50 percent of these workers will be eligible to retire in the next five years. Addressing this problem will require advanced recruitment processes, increased training and improved retention policies.

Revised policies should include allowing pay-for-performance incentives, career progression/promotion based on learning and contributions, and competitive pay with private industry to attract the "best and brightest."

To begin, several steps are in order.

The first one is to inventory the current work force’s skills and deficiencies. The next step would be to determine which functions should or should not be performed by industry contractors and which functions should stay in the public sector. Government and industry are both ill-served by the current failure to accurately define and apply the scope of the functions that are "inherently governmental." This ambiguity makes it even more difficult to define specifically which jobs should be outsourced. The Federal Acquisition Regulations defines "inherently governmental," but that definition is inconsistently applied.

Last year, Congress mandated that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) develop a single government-wide definition and criteria for the identification of critical positions that the government should fill. That process is ongoing.  Further, President Obama has directed OMB to accomplish this mandate by September 30.

Another key issue is the need to ensure there is enough funding to sustain the larger work force.

The Department of Defense Acquisition Development Fund exists for that purpose. The amount of the fund is derived from a percentage (.5 percent in 2008, rising to 2 percent after 2010) of all service contracts, except those for research, development, and military construction.

Recruiting will prove to be the biggest near-term challenge. A recent report published by the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania stated the challenge is not just to bring in bodies, but bodies with the right skills. Qualifications need to include a higher percentage of professionals with scientific, mathematic, and engineering backgrounds. Contracting and program management personnel must come equipped with the requisite technical skills to evaluate the merits of alternative technical solutions. Their pay needs to be comparable with private industry to attract and retain these critical skills. Lacking that, advisory services contractors will rise to fill the holes and the old cycle of government failing as a buyer will reemerge.

The Defense Contract Management Agency has already moved out with a human capital solutions initiative. This program is aimed at improving DCMA’s work force training, leadership development, succession, and overall planning. The Defense Department would be wise to note and take into account these initiatives as it considers its work force improvement program.

The most important issue ultimately is technical expertise. The United States is not producing enough graduates trained in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) who qualify for security clearances. The graduates that the nation produces are not representative of the population of the United States, which reduces diversity in the work force and undermines innovation. The technical literacy of the entire work force has been falling for almost 20 years, according to the National Academy of Sciences' report "Rising to the Gathering Storm."

It is necessary to excite and prepare greater numbers of students who are motivated to enter vocational, undergraduate, and graduate programs in STEM. With industry, government, and community involvement, this can be achieved. But it will take coordinated, sustained focus on improving the educational system beginning in middle school. Many exciting, inspiring, and effective outreach initiatives are under way, but more are needed.

In summary, the Defense Department confronts a work force problem that has taken many years to develop and will take many years to fix. The need is for government and industry to work on this together, balancing needs and skills. This is important to ensure the industrial capacity and ability to produce the most advanced, world-class systems and training capability for the nation’s war fighters and first responders.

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