A recent report by the GAO on the defense acquisition workforce starts to give a clearer picture as to the main reasons DOD continues to struggle in completing its acquisition mission. The report discusses skill gaps, lack of personnel, and overdependence on contractors. As I have posted in the past, contractors are not the enemy. Treating industry as the problem will not solve the issue, and further exacerbate the real human capital management issues the report addresses.
According to the report:
…. GAO found that program office decisions to use contractor personnel are often driven by factors such as quicker hiring time frames and civilian staffing limits, rather than by the skills needed or the nature or criticality of the work. Second, DOD’s lack of key pieces of information limits its ability to determine gaps in the acquisition workforce it needs to meet current and future missions…
… Omitting data on contractor personnel and needed skills from DOD’s workforce assessments not only skews analyses of workforce gaps, but also limits DOD’s ability to make informed workforce allocation decisions and determine whether the total acquisition workforce— in-house and contractor personnel—is sufficient to accomplish its mission..
The total acquisition workforce concept has not been adequately embraced at DOD, and certainly not understood or acknowledged by Congress. The report is correct in that DOD is establishing practices for overseeing additional hiring, recruiting, and retention activities. What seems to be missing is a focused approach to developing the core skills needed by current personnel overseeing in-house contractor acquisition support, mainly training personnel in oversight responsibilities, and program management skills to manage the contractors. Thus the situation is incomplete data with insufficient information on how the acquisition mission gets accomplished, and by whom. The resultant analysis is a conclusion that contractors supporting the acquisition mission are running amok and need to be reined in.
What I find interesting in the report is that the GAO met with representatives of leading companies to understand workforce management practices. However, the GAO did not meet with leading companies that are currently providing DOD with acquisition support. I am not sure why this omission occurred, as GAO could get a better understanding of the needs of government by finding out how and why they are being filled by industry. I think this is telling in the apparent assumption that contractors are inherently causing harm, and that DOD will need to stop “depending” on contractors if the acquisition mission is to be reformed.
The GAO is correct in that much work needs to be done to have an effective human capital management strategy at DOD, and across government, to better ensure that agencies have the right staff, doing the right jobs, in the right place, at the right time, and by making flexible use of its internal workforce and appropriate use of contractors to fill skill and capability gaps. DOD is not truly managing from a “total force” concept as they claim, as they do not collect data on contractors performing critical missions in the acquisition community.
According to the report
… 25 program office cited staffing limits, the speed of hiring, or both as main factors in their decisions to use contractor personnel. Additionally, 22 program offices cited a lack of in-house expertise as a reason for using contractor personnel, and 17 of those indicated that the particular expertise sought is generally not hired by the government…
In other words, DOD is hiring contractors to help perform a critical mission because they not only lack the resources, but lack the skills to perform the mission. What I find somewhat disingenuous is that the information in the GAO report highlights the strategic case made by industry on a limited use by contractors. Industry will not hire outside contractors to perform critical functions because of the proprietary nature of the data. Furthermore, these companies are managing profit-loss tightly, with proprietary information staying in house as the viability of the business depends on it. Industry models for strategic human capital management certainly can be researched for best practices, but I disagree with the approach the GAO took in their analysis as they fail to point out very different business models and missions.
As reported in FCW:
Many government officials and experts already say DOD relies too much on contractors, particularly for services contracts, and it needs to find a way to end that dependence. However, they also acknowledge that it can’t be done quickly or completely.
As result, one member of Congress is taking a simple route. Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) introduced a bill March 18, which would require the defense secretary to train members of the Armed Services before they are deployed on how to manage contracts and contractors.
I have already commented on the route taken by Rep. Sestak (here), and the inherent problems with this approach. The focus is misplaced by the GAO report and members of Congress in that contractors are not a critical issue having a negative effect on DOD acquisitions. I think it is best served to understand that program offices acknowledge that contractors are helping complete a vital mission, and it is imperative of DOD to look inward on how to best meet the needs of the mission, and focus on a true workforce concept which includes support contractors as necessary.