During the last 40 years various groups have convened study after study. Each of these studies offered useful suggestions of how to improve government acquisition. But what has been seriously lacking is a government cadre of properly educated and experienced business managers, financial experts, engineers and scientists to provide the essential oversight.
The Defense Department announced it plans to hire 20,000 additional professionals. This goal is quantitatively overly ambitious and misses the requirement that these new hires be well qualified. To attempt this massive hiring could result in degrading the acquisition corps. The current qualification criteria and hiring process will prevent the desired quality goal from being achieved.
Most of the career fields only require a four-year degree from an accredited institution. The Level III PM (program manager) certification does not even require a formal education. Instead, the focus is on completing the required Defense Acquisition University (DAU) coursework or having years of actual experience. In all cases, the Service Acquisition Executive is authorized to waive the requirements for any given individual who “possesses significant potential for advancement to levels of greater responsibility and authority, based on demonstrated analytical and decision making capabilities, job performance, and qualifying experience,” says 10 USC Sec. 1732. This exception is an unacceptable criteria for key positions in the acquisition process.
The recently published Gansler Commission Report directly tied a lack of acquisition professionals to problems with contingency contracting support. The report attributed some of the cost overruns and schedule delays on large programs to a lack of qualified acquisition professionals to oversee the process.
Overruns and delays have created great concern in Congress. Members are witnessing continual program delays and large cost increases on virtually every major weapon system. Congress addressed the problem by passing the 2009 Weapon Systems Acquisition Reform Act. The primary focus was on realistic cost estimates, forcing enhanced oversight of troubled programs, and a renewed push of the use of more mature technologies and increased competitive prototyping. The law also addressed the lack of the necessary levels of qualified personnel in the acquisition work force.
The intended goal of hiring 20,000 additional acquisition professionals is to help to alleviate at least the workload issues with oversight requirements. But increasing the numbers will not work unless the new hires are qualified. To achieve the needed quality, the hiring process must be modified.
The primary hurdle is archaic hiring. In the current job market, there are large numbers of recent college graduates who would be qualified for and interested in a government acquisition career. The National Security Personnel System (NSPS) pay banding system has made government salaries more competitive than ever before. Unfortunately, the NSPS will be terminated at the end of 2010, and it is not yet known whether the trend will continue when it’s replaced. There are also significant numbers of people in industry who are uniquely qualified and interested in moving to an acquisition career with the government.
The federal personnel system does not sufficiently provide for hiring of the most qualified candidates either through policy or the mechanics of the process. A clear example of this problem is the system of preference for veterans — an archaic holdover from the draft era.
Military duty is a noteworthy public service but does not in of itself create acquisition professionals. The current evaluation of candidates places too much emphasis on prior military service. A minor service record places veterans ahead on a list of much more highly qualified candidates with no military service.
The prior service candidates can circumvent the acquisition certification requirements by using a caveat that they complete the necessary coursework for certification eligibility in 18 to 24 months. Their training is often incomplete or not completed in a timely fashion. There are far too few openings in DAU courses to accommodate this demand for certification eligibility resulting in personnel serving in important jobs without the necessary skills and training.
The current personnel system is mechanically driven by resume keyword searches and civilian personnel managers running down a checklist rather than conducting resume reviews to evaluate whether a candidate is actually qualified. This arbitrary list is heavily weighted by veterans’ preferences. It is then presented to the hiring managers. The most qualified applicants are often missing from these lists. Hiring managers need to make these decisions rather human resource personnel.
Overall, the hiring process needs to focus on the quality of the candidates, not arbitrary numerical goals. The first step is to change the process and rewrite the qualification requirements.
The Army appears to be attempting to expedite the hiring of candidates for critical acquisition positions. Its new policy allows for the direct hiring from the list of qualified applicants, which has been generated by the civilian personnel officer. This change allows direct hiring while waiving the requirement to explain why each of the higher candidates on the list was not chosen. This approach does not address the problem created by cutting off more qualified applicants from the list because they lack military experience.
Achieving the goal of hiring 20,000 new acquisition professionals will require a tremendous effort but it cannot be reached without major changes to the personnel system. The prior
military service preference is inconsistent with the requirement to hire the most qualified person for the position and needs to be eliminated.
The time to make these changes is now.Dale W. Church is a former deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition management.