Back to News

PSC President: Six Ideas for the Future of Federal Sector Training

Stan Soloway, President,          Professional Services Council


Lately it may seem like training in the Federal sector is under fire.  From last year’s post-GSA clampdown on travel, to this year’s sequestration-driven furloughs and budget cuts that leave less time and money, training is often moving to the bottom of the priority list.  But should it?

Most front-line folks would say no.  More than 60% of respondents said a lack of training is a top challenge that gets in the way of successful outcomes, according to a survey of those in government and industry that Integrity conducted with GovLoop for the new guide “Addressing the Complex Challenges Facing Today’s Acquisition Professional.”  Those findings echo the results of the Professional Services Council’s biennial “Acquisition Policy Survey.” It cites having “trained acquisition professionals” as one of the top three challenges of our present acquisition environment.

Integrity Matters caught up with PSC President Stan Soloway right after he returned from the National Contract Management Association (NCMA) World Congress, where training was one of many issues on the agenda.  As a former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense who led a defense acquisition reform initiative, Soloway says this period of austerity makes training tougher, but he argues, like other turnarounds that were spurred by crisis, it may be the perfect time to overhaul training programs so that they’re more effective and efficient. 

Why Training Matters

Soloway says there should be greater recognition at all levels of why training matters. Three reasons to rethink the red marker on training programs:

  1. Workforce management: From motivating a disillusioned workforce, to being agile enough to respond to changing needs, training keeps employees on top of their game.  When they don’t have it? More than 53% of respondents to the GovLoop survey, said lack of training hampers their teams’ abilities Daily or Weekly.
  2. The multiplier effect: Lack of experience and training, combined with staff reductions, equals suboptimal results.  “Folks who have less than five years of experience are being asked, due to workplace shortfalls, to do very complex work.  But we’re not giving them the tools to do it and we expect great outcomes,” he says.  “It impedes good engagement with the private sector providers, it leads to bad contracting decisions…and it tends to therefore lead you to a very rigid, check-the-box approach, as opposed to one where you utilize serious critical thinking abilities.”
  3. Core competency: There may be a budget crisis, but the government will still have to buy goods and services.  “Even if you see a 15% reduction in contracting in government, which would be a lot, you’re still talking about an industry that’s 15 times the size of Hollywood. That’s an enormous industry,” says Soloway. Better training enables people to make better decisions with public dollars.

Where is the Opportunity?

Soloway believes it’s time to step back and reexamine the entire model of workforce development, a long-term process that won’t be fixed in a year or two. Still, he offers six suggestions for areas to focus on:

  • Keep the best of the old, while introducing the new: “We are going through a once in a life time generational change in government, both in terms of people and technology.  We’ll have a massive turnover in the acquisition community over the next 5-10 years.  That means you have an opportunity, if you do it right, to both tap the most relevant institutional knowledge… but also view in the workforce of the future a somewhat different ethic and approach.”
  • Get rid of the silos: According to Soloway, cross-functional, cross-agency training develops well-rounded professionals who understand the broad spectrum of what their organization does and needs, and can apply their specific skill set.  “There’s so little early stage collaboration, we’re back to the old days of what we used to call ‘throw it over the transom.’ So you talk to folks in the technology or other operating spaces, and they’re frustrated with the results they’re getting out of acquisitions. You talk to the acquisitions people and they’re frustrated they’re not strategic advisors throughout the process. I think that is a function of how we currently train and organize the workforce.”
  • Consider who is providing the training: Government is already mixing virtual with brick and mortar training, in response to both the newer generation demand and reduced training budgets.  Soloway says an equally important question to how the training is provided, is WHO is providing it.  “If you look at the corporate university model around the country, a lot of companies have their own training centers where they don’t tend to have a lot of permanent faculty. They have professionals in their field who teach short courses – practitioners bringing the newest updates and fresh experience to the table.”  Compare that to the government model with people who are effectively full time teachers. “Some are people who haven’t been in the field for years. It’s not only the tools you use; it’s a question of who your people with expertise are, what you’re teaching, and how you’re doing it.”
  • Teach critical thinking:  Current training tools may not fully prepare an acquisition professional to exercise good business strategy.  Programs should include market research, negotiating skills, risk identification and management, and critical thinking.  Says Soloway: “When you talk to younger acquisition folks they’re told to be thinking, but then they’re presented with this alternative that is check-the-box, or to follow these rigid procedures, as opposed to what’s strategic and smart.”
  • Support educated risks: Soloway says people will do the best they can to meet the mission need without putting themselves in excessive risk, so leadership must be prepared to not only encourage but support risk, recognizing that that means there are going to be failures. “This is something that Joe Jordan, Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement, said loud and clear at World Congress,” says Soloway.  “When we say risk, we’re talking about thoughtful, reasonable risk, not just irresponsible risk, but recognizing that with any kind of innovation, you’re going to have to step out a little bit. And that you’re going to be supported when you do it.”
  • Educate leadership: Outside of the acquisition chain, agency leadership often does not fully appreciate the central role acquisition plays in meeting mission needs, which “places a very difficult burden on acquisition folks,” says Soloway.  Moreover, policy and directives get diluted as they go down the chain. “I think what we’re seeing now is an enormous gap between the very top leadership and the next level of leadership, where leadership is taught strategically about how to approach things, but the very next layers are saying, ‘No, we’re not doing that.’  So I think the workforce on the frontline is getting very mixed signals.”

A Collective Challenge

Training is fundamental to a strong workforce, but Soloway says every analysis and frontline reporting, shows current programs are not getting the job done.  So how can a new dynamic for training get started?  Soloway says it doesn’t require a review of laws and regulations, but rather a holistic view of how government approaches workforce development, collaboration, and innovation.  “The pressure to make change,” he says, “must come from the practitioners in the field.”

What do you think?  Who should tackle the issue of training and how?