DHS Needs a World-Class Acquisition Workforce

Several current news articles and recent Congressional hearings profile the many acquisition challenges facing the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and correctly cite the critical shortage of acquisition personnel as a root cause of a number of difficult problems. Of the 23 agencies merged into DHS, only seven came with established procurement offices. Of those seven, four were critically understaffed at the time of the merger: (Transportation Security Administration (TSA), Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)). At the time of the merger it was conservatively estimated that TSA needed 200 more contracting people and that CBP, ICE, and FEMA (before Hurricane Katrina and Rita) each needed 150 more. The three other DHS agencies with established procurement offices – the U. S. Coast Guard, the Secret Service, and the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center – were considered in 2003 to be adequately staffed for their various workloads and missions. (The staffing numbers cited are taken from a workload-and-staffing study conducted during 2004, and are based on a cost-to-spend ratio that is not quite one half of what the private sector would require to accomplish the same work.) The other 16 agencies that were merged into DHS came to the department without procurement offices or acquisition support. In addition, nearly 30 new offices created by the Homeland Security Act also lacked acquisition support. All of these offices combined generate $4.5 billion annually in disbursements, a total larger than the entire annual acquisition budgets of most of the federal government’s executive departments. 

Large Expectations, Slim Realities 

To ameliorate what already was perceived as a potentially major problem, DHS created an eighth procurement office, known as the Office of Procurement Operations (OPO). On the day of its creation, the OPO needed 220 people in order to be fully staffed. It had eight people. Overall, it is conservatively estimated that these eight procurement offices were understaffed in 2003 by some 400 positions. Since 2003, the staffing shortages, although being addressed, are still close to the 400 level, while the DHS acquisition budget has increased from $8 billion to over $14 billion. In the past, federal employees were hired and trained at a measured pace, but that past no longer exists. The acquisition workforce is not keeping pace, either in numbers or in quality, with the growing number of missions that have been assigned DHS is facing, really, two interlocking problems in this important area – namely, how to recruit what usually will be entry-level people; and how to make them effective workers at a faster pace. There seems to be no need to drastically change the curriculum that already has been developed, but there is certainly a need to supplement that curriculum by making entry-level people more effective – i.e., smarter and better informed – more quickly. The department also must develop a way (or ways) to more quickly combine the knowledge provided in the room with the practical skills that are learned doing the actual work “on the ground.” This problem is not unique to DHS, it should be noted. Throughout the federal government, the acquisition workforce is not keeping pace, either in numbers or in quality, with the growing number of missions that have been assigned to most agencies. The Procurement Round Table, a non-profit organization chartered in 1984, reports that “during the past five years, procurement obligations have increased 60 percent . . . [and] during this same period, the procurement workforce has decreased five percent.” 

The Dilution of Forward Progress 

With over $350 billion being spent annually by the federal government’s acquisition people, it is of paramount importance – and citizens should demand this – that there be sufficient numbers of contracting people in the entire federal workforce, that those people be properly trained, and that they be persons of high integrity. Over fifteen years ago, there were sufficient numbers of contracting people in the federal procurement workforce, and most if not quite all agencies were able to take the time needed to develop their skills. At that time, a typical procurement person in the GS-1102 series would report into a stable (relative to today) organization as an intern and be assigned such tasks as copying, reading the regulations, and conducting small purchase duties. Over the years, increasingly difficult assignments would follow and the individual would advance in the organization as he or she gained more skills and experience, and as more senior employees retired or departed to the private sector. Today, the federal acquisition workforce has experienced nearly two decades of decline during a time when contracting has become more complex and the workload and the dollars being obligated both have increased exponentially. In short, today’s federal acquisition workforce finds itself in a stranglehold. There are too few people being asked to perform ever increasing amounts of purchasing at a time when it is difficult to find, attract, train, and retain a new workforce for this generation. This problem is likely to become considerably more difficult in the foreseeable future, because it is estimated that almost one half of the current federal acquisition workforce will be eligible to retire in the next five years. The problem has been recognized for some time, but not much has been done to resolve it, and now the repercussions are becoming alarmingly evident. The result of not having invested more, and more wisely, in the acquisition workforce finds expression in many ways. Processes have been streamlined, for example, and costly shortcuts have been taken, in ways not always in the best interest of the taxpayer. In addition, small businesses have suffered, there has been an increase in the number of non-competitive contracts awarded, and some critical checks and balances have been ignored. Perhaps the most unfortunate effect of the failure to invest in the acquisition workforce is that it has created an atmosphere in which integrity lapses have increased and media reports about “how a promising procurement career ended in felony” have become more common. 

Strategic Planning and Numerous Benefits 

For DHS the challenge can be summarized somewhat as follows: How does the department hire 400 more acquisition people in today’s environment – in which almost all federal agencies face procurement shortages – and how does the department make these new employees more effective workers at a faster pace? The obvious answer is that the department must start by developing a strategic hiring plan for its contracting workforce. Equally obvious is that one part of the plan should emphasize the following attractive aspects of this career field within the federal service:

  1. First and foremost, public service, although deeply rewarding in many ways, is not charity work. Today, a college graduate can expect to move to the GS-13 or 14 level in four to five years, and earn between $80,000 to $90,000 per year.
  2. With nearly half of the federal acquisition workforce eligible to retire within the next five years, there is rapid growth potential in this career field.
  3. Unlike the situation in many other federal career fields, the experience gained as a federal procurement employee is highly portable and can easily be translated to the private sector.
  4. Significant responsibility is often given to qualified individuals at a very early age. It is likely that, within five years, a person will have unlimited signature authority over critical programs.
  5. There are numerous “beyond the paycheck” benefits that result from working on programs that make a significant difference to this nation and its future.

A Glittering Glimmer of Hope 

Finally, there are at least two good examples that reflect both creativity and hope. (a) The Transportation Security Administration is initiating an innovative approach this year to the hiring of entry-level contract specialists. Next month, in fact, TSA expects to hire 20 fellows into its second of new recruits. Unlike the members of the first , these recruits will be assigned to a specialized unit devoted exclusively to their development. They will go through an eight month program that includes seven weeks of the mandatory contracting training required by federal certification standards. This will be an intense learning program that provides both simulated and real experience on all types of contracting approaches. The new entry-level specialists will learn simplified acquisition techniques, negotiation techniques and tactics, and the proper use of GSA schedules. When they graduate, these twenty new contract professionals will transition into operational divisions within TSA and be qualified to complete many types of contract actions. (b) The Internal Revenue Service, a Treasury Department agency, recently hired 60 college graduates and plans to upgrade their skills and qualifications through a three-year development program (while they also are working and contributing to the agency mission). This new IRS program is overseen by the Treasury Acquisition Institute, which is currently training more than 5,000 acquisition personnel from 17 different federal agencies. These two examples represent a real glimmer of hope for the acquisition profession that contributes so significantly to the critical missions of the federal government.

Greg Rothwell

Greg Rothwell, a principal with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, served as the first DHS chief procurement officer; he also was the first assistant commissioner for procurement (from 1990 to 2000) at the IRS. He is an advisor to the Homeland Security and Defense Business Council, a member of the Procurement Round Table, and a board member of the Senior Executives Association.



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