Building a 21st century acquisition workforce

Bloomberg Government regularly publishes insights, opinion and best practices from our community of senior leaders and decision-makers. This column is written by Tom Skypek, co-founder and CEO of GovBizConnect.com, an online network for government contracting professionals

With roughly 10,000 Baby Boomers retiring daily, what will be the impact to the federal acquisition workforce? Nearly one third of the federal workforce will be eligible to retire in 2018, according to a study by the Government Accountability Office. A mass exodus of retirement-eligible employees could leave major gaps in the federal workforce as years of technical, institutional, legal, and regulatory knowledge walks out the door.

But while the “brain drain” risk is real, the ongoing demographic shift provides a rare, generational opportunity to transformation the federal acquisition system for the better. As millennials enter civil service and Generation X assumes more senior roles, there will be an opportunity to drive large-scale, organizational change within the federal acquisition system throughout the contract lifecycle.

People
 
Reforming the acquisition system is about people; it’s about shifting the behaviors and attitudes of the workforce to what it means to be an acquisition professional, their views on customer service, and how they create value. Legislation, regulation, and technology are only part of the equation. These are enablers of change but changes are implemented by people. With this shift, there is an opportunity to build a culture of accountability, customer service, and fiscal discipline.

Technology
 
The comfort level of both millennials and Generation X with technology is an important dimension of this opportunity as well. Their conversance with technology has the opportunity to eliminate process waste, accelerate delivery, and improve customer satisfaction. They grew up applying technology to solve problems and, thus, are in a more natural position to exploit fully its potential business benefits.

Business Process Improvement
 
The best talent in the world and the slickest technology won’t matter at all if business processes are inefficient and riddled with red tape. Outmoded contract management processes should be identified and streamlined. This, of course, is much easier said than done but it’s a critical first step to make the enterprise function at a higher level and achieve the desired outcomes on a more frequent basis. Millennials and, to a lesser extent, Generation X, are more malleable than civil servants who started their careers in the Nixon administration.

Behaviors & Attitudes of the 21stCentury Acquisition Workforce
 
The next challenge is implementation–transforming the behaviors and attitudes of the workforce to work more efficiently in this new environment. This will be incredibly challenging but, as I mentioned earlier, the demographic shift that’s ongoing provides a rare opportunity to affect large-scale change and make some serious improvements in contract management outcomes.

Driving Accountability
 
One of the other levers that must be improved is management of personnel. There must be more accountability for successes and failures. Contractors, civil servants, and military personnel alike need to be held accountable for their performance. As a former consultant, I saw first-hand, on numerous occasions, the inability of both civilian and military leaders to hold staff accountable and cultivate the kinds of behaviors and attitudes required to be minimally effective, let alone drive large-scale transformation. This is not because they were all bad leaders. They are operating in a system where it is difficult to hold individuals accountable. There needs to be serious reform to allow federal managers more leeway in holding their staffs accountable for performance.

Focused Resources
 
Throwing more dollars at this problem will not make it better. To the contrary, targeted and thoughtful cuts will help to drive leanness into the enterprise. Without profit as an incentive, one of the great drivers of human behavior is off the table. Working in a resource-constrained environment can be poisonous to morale, but when done correctly it can have a tremendous focusing effect. Organizational change of this magnitude is difficult but this demographic shift in the workforce provides a rare opportunity to make serious changes.

The U.S. Government should develop a coordinated and unified approach for capitalizing on this trend across the federal government. One challenge will be attracting millennials to the profession. But there are opportunities to re-brand federal acquisition in ways which would make it a more sought-after career choice for this demographic. These generational shifts don’t happen often, so the federal government should be thinking about how they can capitalize on this macro trend. The benefits could be significant–from more successful programs, faster delivery times to savings for the taxpayers.


Originally published at about.bgov.com on February 17, 2016.