Today’s defense environment is placing growing pressure on defense policymakers to be nimble and adaptive, particularly with respect to acquisition systems and processes.
Critics have shined a spotlight on the acquisition workforce (AW)—its size, quality, and effectiveness—as a key contributing factor to the observed problems. Three workforce-related claims feature most prominently in the current debates:
(1) The current workforce is too small to meet current workload.
Key drivers of the increasing demands include the complexity of service contracting, which is a growing share of all government contracting; the fact that the number of transactions is no longer a good measure of workload; and the fact that best-value procurement approaches are substantially more complex than lowest-price contracting approaches
(2) DoD overuses or inappropriately uses contractors to perform acquisition functions. The dramatic increase in the federal government’s use of contractors to provide services has received significant attention in recent years. Concerns relate not only to the number of contractors performing government functions, but also to the role they are playing—in particular, whether they are performing inherently governmental functions..
(3) The workforce lacks the skills to accomplish the workload. Another common refrain in discussions about the state of the defense AW is that the nature of the work has become substantially more complex, while the workforce has lost some of the skills or training needed to perform this work. Increased workload complexity is attributed primarily to increased use of best-value procurement methods and the complexity of service contracts, which comprise a growing share of the workload. Evidence that the workforce lacks the skills necessary to fulfill its mission is largely anecdotal, and the arguments are far less specific than those related to workforce size.
DoD has announced plans to increase the defense AW by 20,000 (or 16 percent) over the next five years. The workforce plan has been described as a “bold step” toward addressing cost growth and schedule delays with major weapon systems. The proposed growth would include the conversion of 11,000 contractor support personnel to full-time government positions as well as 9,000 new federal hires. It is unclear whether this step will deliver on its promise of improving acquisition outcomes.
Overview of the defense AW and the policy influencing its management
Although USD (AT&L) is the senior official providing overall supervision of the defense acquisition system, the office does not have direct authority over the many issues affecting AW management.
The strength of the evidence supporting the key concerns that have emerged related to the AW
The evidence in support of three critical issues that have been raised about the AW: that it is too small to meet current workload, that it lacks the skills needed to effectively accomplish the workload, and that the workforce mix is out of line in terms of the number of contractors being used to perform acquisition functions. We argue that the information available on workforce requirements, size, quality, and mix is insufficient to assess whether more workers, more highly skilled workers, or a different mix of workers would improve acquisition outcomes.
Data on workforce supply exist, but they have serious limitations for accurately depicting trends in the size of the defense AW. Two limitations are of particular importance: (1) varying definitions of the organic (military and civilian) defense AW and (2) the absence of DoD-wide information on the number of contractors in DoD data about the defense AW.
For all the attention that has been focused on the defense AW over the past three decades, one would think there would be a clear and consistent definition of what the defense AW is, but this is not so.
Due to lack of data, we are simply unable to characterize when, where, and why contractors are being used to provide acquisition-related services across DoD; the characteristics of those contractors; and how their use and characteristics may have changed over time. The information that we do have comes from targeted, in-depth, point-in-time examinations of specific programs or specific organizations. The major take-away from these studies is that DoD makes substantial use of contractors in performing acquisition-related functions and that this use varies dramatically across functions, occupations, programs, and organizations.
The targeted studies described previously suggest that the use of contractors to perform acquisition functions is not based on a comprehensive strategic assessment of the long-run costs and benefits of their use.
Over three-quarters of DoD acquisition programs reported that they used contractors as a way to get around critical constraints: personnel ceiling, civilian pay budget constraints, limitations with the federal government hiring process, or a lack of in-house capability in a particular area.
[Managers] pointed to challenges in filling positions as well as a failure to obtain hiring authorizations for all the requirements as reasons why the actual workforce fell short of requirements.
Evidence that the workforce lacks the skills necessary is largely anecdotal, and the arguments are far less specific than those related to workforce size. A key barrier to assessing this perspective is a lack of systematic data on the skill level of the workforce, not to mention the skills that are required to perform the work
Workforce initiatives are unlikely to be the silver the silver bullet that will improve acquisition outcomes, but given present data constraints, we would acquisition not be able to answer that question anyway.
Efforts should be directed toward assembling the information needed to track the effectiveness of these new initiatives and to make, refine, or dismiss the case for further workforce adjustments.
Conclusions and Recommendations
The steps DoD should take to acquire this information.
- Establish Key Process Standards That Are Plausibly Influenced by the Workforce, and Consistently Monitor Those Processes. An infinitely large and supremely qualified AW will not generate on-time, on-budget systems with no problems or appeals 100 percent of the time. The AW acts within the confines of a process, and if the process itself is not operating effectively, then improvements to the workforce can only do so much. Attention must be paid to the acquisition process itself, including the incentives for effective work embodied in that process. The AW must be viewed as an input to a process operation, and thought should be given to concrete outcomes that the workforce could be expected to influence. These would not be the high-level outputs of on-time, on-budget systems, but they could include important process-oriented outcomes that reflect top-flight systems engineering practices and could ultimately lead to improvements in the key outcomes of interest. It is also critical to acknowledge that the AW is engaged in a wide range of procurement-related activities and that different types of activities are likely to require separate and distinct outcome measures.
- Map Workforce Characteristics to Acquisition Activities and Their Outcomes. To identify the impact of workforce size and quality on acquisition outcomes, one needs to assess acquisition outcomes and relate those outcomes back to the workforce. …Currently, such a mapping of the defense AW is not possible
- Assess the Appropriateness of the Current Workforce Mix. …the data required to provide a convincing argument that the defense AW mix is inadequate or inappropriate to meet current needs are lacking. …But current data cannot shed light on whether the workforce mix is appropriate and adequate to workforce needs. Assessing whether the workforce mix is on target requires data that relates workforce measures to outcomes using a consistent unit of analysis such as the acquisition program.
- Include the Contractor Workforce in Strategic Workforce Planning. Currently, contractors are effectively ignored in strategic human capital efforts, yet we know they are playing a nontrivial role. The bottom line is that it is not possible to effectively manage human capital while ignoring an important segment of the workforce.
- Assess How Staffing and Resourcing Decisions Related to Acquisition Functions Are Made. … specific characteristics of the workforce and its training and development are .only partial contributors to acquisition outcomes. Even policies that are targeted specifically at the AW are influenced by budgeting and management decisions that take place within the services and agencies. A realistic assessment of how staffing and resource decisions relate to the acquisition functions—the decisions that determine how many and what type of people are brought onboard to do the work, how their workload is managed, and how they are a mentored and trained—is necessary to understand the effect that specific policies are likely to have on the AW and ultimately on acquisition outcomes. Such an understanding is especially critical in a time of workforce growth because the hiring that takes place today will influence the AW for decades to come.