ASI Analysis: Surveys reveal large gap in views of workforce skills

 A comparison of this summer's report of acquisition professionals' ratings of their competencies to a recent survey of their leaders' views shows wide ratings gaps in many areas. It appears that members of the acquisition workforce have a much more positive view of their skills and capabilities than do their leaders.

Because the workforce competency survey is used to set the acquisition training agenda for civilian agencies, the perception gap may mean that the skills that acquisition leaders believe are critical won't be identified as educational priorities. While acquisition leaders said most acquisition workforce members need core business skills because they are buying goods and services in competitive commercial environments, leaders believe those capabilities are in short supply.


"Less than Highly Competent"

For example, large majorities of acquisition leaders rated their staffs as less than highly competent in skills such as selecting appropriate contract types, business acumen, and negotiation, according to the 2014 Acquisition Policy Survey released January 22 by the Professional Services Council (PSC).

But in the 2014 Acquisition Workforce Competency Survey (AWCS) report released in July, acquisition employees rated themselves highly on choosing contracts and business acumen and only a bit below average in negotiation.

What's more, acquisition leaders and supervisors also differ widely in their assessment of those they manage. Leaders reported to PSC that the workforce has "gaps in many core competencies critical to delivering optimal quality and results." But 85 percent of supervisors responding to the AWCS indicated their staff members "are effective in helping the agency fulfill its mission." Majorities also agreed that their staffs are appropriately trained, are not risk-averse, and have seen their skills improve over the past year.

PSC surveyed senior acquisition executives, front-line contracting professionals, congressional staff, members of the oversight community, young acquisition professionals, and industry representatives. The council has conducted the biennial survey for 12 years.

The 2014 Acquisition Workforce Competency biennial survey is the fourth administered by the Federal Acquisition Institute and Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP). It received 14,378 responses from civilian agency contracting officers and contracting officer's representatives (CORs), their supervisors, and program and project managers. The 7,336 COR respondents made up 61 percent of the total, contracting officers were 31 percent, and program and project managers 8 percent.


70 Percent Advanced or Expert

More than half of the acquisition leaders responding to the PSC survey said the ability to select correct contract structures, techniques, and strategies is extremely important for acquisition professionals. But only 5 percent called their workforces highly competent in these skills.

In contrast, contracting officers responding to the AWCS rated themselves highest on the competency that includes choosing procurement methods. The AWCS contracting officer competency called "determining how best to satisfy customer requirements" includes the ability to "determine the appropriate method of procurement that satisfies the customer's requirements while properly allocating risk." A majority of contracting officers, 70 percent, rated themselves as advanced or expert in that competency.

Acquisition leaders surveyed by PSC also placed a premium on business acumen as an acquisition workforce capability. None rated their staffs as highly competent in this area.

CORs, on the other hand, rated themselves significantly higher on business acumen and communication than other COR competencies on the AWCS. More than 40 percent rated themselves as advanced or expert in these skills.


Innovation Deficit

Parts of the workforce appear to agree with acquisition leaders that there is a deficit in capability for bringing innovation into government.

A notable portion of acquisition leaders cited workforce skills as "the most significant inhibitor to their agency's ability to obtain innovative solutions," according to the PSC report. Similarly, CORs rated themselves lower on effective preaward communications and market research than on other COR competencies.

Much of the work involved in opening the federal market to innovative companies and solutions occurs in adopting new approaches when planning acquisitions, identifying new players as potential competitors during market research, and helping them navigate the procurement process in preaward communications.

Both the acquisition leaders and the sponsors of the competency survey believe the acquisition workforce needs more training and development. But they don't agree on areas to target or on the degree to which workforce education must change. Thus, it's hard to see how the two sets of recommendations can be reconciled.

The AWCS sponsors intend to use their survey's results to drive future workforce development decisions. So for contracting officers' training, for example, they will target protests and cost and/or price analysis, two areas in which contracting officers gave themselves lower ratings.

The PSC report, on the other hand, calls for "holistic change in workforce planning, development and support," as well as rethinking and redesign of the education and training of the acquisition workforce. In recommending major remodeling of workforce preparation, the report cites the persistence of gaps in business acumen and related skills across years of biennial surveys.

A new OFPP initiative may bring greater attention to some of the weaknesses raised by acquisition leaders and industry. OFPP will develop by early March guidance that agencies can use to gather input from vendors bidding on solicitations and current contractors. The guidelines will "help to identify trends (both strengths and weaknesses) that agency managers can use to address systemic issues in acquisition management practices and make improvements," OFPP administrator Anne Rung wrote in a December 4, 2014, memorandum to agency chief acquisition officers and senior procurement officials.