It’s the problem that won’t seem to go away: for decades, government agencies, academics and industry associations have identified a lack of expertise and training among acquisition personnel as a key challenge for the acquisition workforce.
Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, acknowledged the problem, adding a new goal to Better Buying Power 2.0 to improve professionalism through stronger qualification requirements. The Professional Services Council cites having “trained acquisition professionals” as one of the top three challenges of our present acquisition environment in its “Acquisition Policy Survey.” More than 60% of government/industry survey respondents for an acquisition guide by GovLoop and Integrity, said lack of expertise is a top challenge that gets in the way of successful acquisition outcomes.
With agency budgets shrinking but the volume and complexity of government contracts growing, what’s the answer to the ongoing problem? More training is a natural response, but Michael Fischetti, Executive Director of the National Contract Management Association (NCMA) believes it will require a bigger shift. An idea he’ll be advocating in 2014 is “to make contract management a true profession.”
What Does ‘True Profession’ Look Like?
The thousands and thousands of people working in acquisition may feel they’re already professionals, but Fischetti envisions a workforce that meets a standard level of knowledge, similar to accountants or lawyers who have to pass a standardized test to be certified. So whether you work for a private company or a government agency, if you’re managing and executing government contracts, you would need to be certified and trained to a commonly-accepted standard.
“If I’m having my taxes done I want to know that the person doing it knows what they’re doing and I don’t believe that when you speak with a government contracting officer or an industry contracts manager, you necessarily have that guarantee, that sense of security,” says Fischetti. “You might on an individual basis – I know Joe Shmo, he knows what he’s doing. But there’s nothing you can look at in terms of a resume that will guarantee it.”
Why Does a Professional Standard Matter?
Fischetti believes requiring all people in the sector to be certified, plus making training and testing more rigorous than current offerings, would help stem the cost overruns and poorly executed programs that he saw in his decades-long career in federal civilian and defense agencies as a Director of procurement and acquisition.
Across-the-board professional standards would also validate the importance of the acquisition and contract management function. Fischetti believes there’s a lack of appreciation for the complexities, both from the general public and senior leaders in government. “A lot of people perceive, ‘Well it’s just clerical work. Type up the contracts. Why is it taking so long?’ I’ve been in situations where you’re trying to advise political appointees or people at a senior level of what it is you do, and there’s just a lack of understanding.”
Moreover, when acquisition professionals aren’t part of the decision making process, a program may be un-executable because key considerations weren’t included. “At NCMA, we promote the contract management professional as the business advisor with more than just knowledge of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, but also business competency, which includes marketing, finance, and economics – all of the elements that you would expect in any kind of business decision.”
Doesn’t the Government Already Have a Human Capital Crisis to Manage?
With budget cuts, frozen pay, retirements and furloughs, Government agencies have experienced a loss of in-house expertise. At the same time, streamlining of some procurement rules means, “you could have a generation of contract managers, many of whom have not done anything more than issue task orders against the GSA schedules or an IDIQ contract,” says Fischetti. He argues there’s never been a better time to foster a more skilled workforce. “If we have the right kind of expertise and the right kind of competencies, we could probably hire fewer people.”
What About the Costs Involved?
In an environment of austerity, how do you convince the sector to agree to pay for a system of required certifications? Fischetti says taking a long-term view, the nominal cost of investing in experientially-based education and testing pales in comparison to the billions of taxpayer dollars being managed by contract management professionals. “It is spending $1.00 to properly manage and save $1,000,000.00. The level of responsibility of contract managers today more than justifies the investment required. Besides, I submit that these individuals would be willing to invest these resources themselves ( as in other professions) or at most, would meet the training funding requirements already provided by most government and industry employers today.”
How Would Professionalization Be Implemented?
Fischetti says collaboration between the public and private sectors is essential to the success of this idea. He recommends a three-part framework:
- Build commonly accepted standards for professional contracting, just as there are in other professions. Fischetti offers the NCMA’s Contract Management Body of Knowledge (CMBOK) as a starting point. Now in its fourth version, the CMBOK was developed by NCMA members from the public and private sectors and academia.
- Standardize requirement of a certification, such as a Certified Professional Contracts Manager (CPCM), which compares to a Level 3 within government. Currently a voluntary program, Fischetti believes widely adopting this standard for excellence and expertise could potentially result in improved government program and contracting performance.
- Open up accreditation to more knowledge providers, creating a more private sector solution. Fischetti says this would permit industry and schools to compete for students on their own merits, similar to almost any other field of endeavor. An association such as NCMA could accredit knowledge providers based on universally-developed and widely adopted competencies. “So if I’m at the University of Virginia or a training organization or a company, it opens the field and could accommodate more students,” he says.
Solution Lies with the People
Acquisition reform is not about more laws or regulations, argues Fischetti. “It’s really all about the staff and the professionals who perform contract management, and that’s where we believe the solution lies.” To make the contract management profession a true profession, “we need to create a standard, teach to that standard and accept nothing less than that standard.”
What do you think? Should contract management be professionalized? If so, how would you recommend it be done?