Unprecedented Spending Puts Strain on Acquisition Function

72639-main_FullGovernment’s top procurement officials scramble to award unprecedented amounts of contract funds.

It is either the best of times to be in the acquisition management field, or the worst. Chief procurement executives are being called upon to spend unprecedented amounts of taxpayer dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in an abbreviated time period – an epic task the Obama administration believes will help turn around the entire economy.

The Recovery Act comes with its share of risk. During the next several years, agencies will award as much as $60 billion in recovery contracts, most often with an undersized and overburdened acquisition workforce that has languished for more than a decade. If the pressures of executing the largest stimulus in government history were not enough, chief acquisition officers understand that hordes of journalists, watchdogs and skeptics will be vigilantly studying their decisions. One embarrassing misstep could send CAO careers into a tailspin.

Despite the mounting pressure, procurement leaders are anxious to tackle the challenge, and they welcome an opportunity to shine a spotlight on their field. “In some ways the Recovery Act has raised the level of importance of having the acquisition professional involved in strategic decision-making,” says Debra Sonderman, chief procurement officer at the Interior Department. “We’ve talked for years about looking at ourselves as business managers. . . . Those organizations that are bringing their acquisition folks into the process early are seeing the fruits of that in being able to plan effectively for how they’re going to roll projects out and ensure we meet the requirements” of the Recovery Act.

Double-Edged Sword

The Recovery Act presents a wealth of opportunities and complications for the CAO community. On one hand, the acquisition workforce has been given an unparalleled level of responsibility to spend billions of dollars to improve the nation’s long-term infrastructure, energy and education systems. Procurement personnel – often described as overworked and underappreciated – are likely to be stretched even thinner, but many see themselves at the center of a unique national effort. “For an acquisition person to see that the work they’re doing can be a direct part of strengthening our country’s economy is really a very big deal,” Sonderman says.

On the other hand, the stimulus presents a host of complicated reporting and oversight challenges, the likes of which the acquisition community has not faced in years. The Office of Management and Budget, for example, is still issuing guidance on the data funding recipients will be required to track and report. Despite the incomplete directives, acquisition officials must move full steam ahead on disbursing Recovery Act funds.

“Our focus is on ensuring oversight, accountability and unprecedented transparency of the funds and how they are spent,” says Craig Hooks, acting chief acquisition officer at the Environmental Protection Agency. “We must award funds quickly and efficiently while also ensuring that each project is closely monitored for progress and results.” In many cases, acquisition offices are attempting to pull together detailed information from a variety of data sources. Complicating matters even further, contracting officers will be responsible not only for their own reporting but for the information contract award winners submit. “We have to make sure we have the right people and well-trained people to monitor the contracts once they’ve been awarded to ensure performance, and that recipients are complying with their reporting,” Sonderman says.

Senior acquisition officials say they view the stimulus more as an opportunity than as a challenge. The desire to ensure that Recovery Act money is spent wisely, Sonderman says, has led to increased communication across silos that often divide agency acquisitions. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to strengthen collaboration between budget, acquisition, finance, the solicitor’s office, program offices, etc., because we’re all needing to work together to make decisions to move things quickly,” she says.

While an influx of new money can be overwhelming, it also provides agencies a chance to address long-standing infrastructure problems. Interior, for example, owns and manages 160,000 buildings and structures. Deferred maintenance on these properties has become a major issue in recent years, Sonderman says. Recovery Act funds will allow the agency to accelerate progress on its five-year property maintenance and preservation plan.

The General Services Administration’s Public Buildings Service, which also manages a massive property portfolio, is getting $5.5 billion in stimulus funds – a more than 500 percent uptick from its normal annual appropriations. “Clearly, we are getting a lot more money to spend this year than we would normally execute in the course of a year,” says David Drabkin, GSA’s acting chief acquisition officer.

Nevertheless, he says, GSA is not ramping up its hiring to deal with the boost in funding. “We can’t,” he says. “It’s not possible to hire enough employees quickly enough with the experience they would need to do the work this year.” Agencies are handling this inability to staff up for the stimulus in different ways. GSA officials are aligning staff with resources and bringing back dozens of retirees. Interior will hire contractors to help with document preparation; the department also will rely more on intern programs. “In some cases we will have the interns do the more routine work and our current, more seasoned staff will do the Recovery Act projects, which can be more complex or, because of the need for speed, need to have more senior people who can be most efficient,” Sonderman says.

At EPA, a team of managers have been designated to oversee Recovery Act activities. “EPA is leveraging its existing resources and processes in order to carry out implementation of the Recovery Act in an efficient manner,” says Hooks, who is the agency’s point person on Recovery Act issues. “EPA offices have adapted internal financial and management processes to expedite the flow of Recovery Act money to qualified grant recipients and contractors.” Despite the complicated resource and staffing challenges, Hooks is more than optimistic that his employees can carry out the administration’s lofty goals for the stimulus. “I have no doubt that EPA’s Recovery Act funds will be managed well and will protect and increase the number of green jobs, sustain communities, restore and preserve economic viability of property, promote scientific advances and technological innovation, and ensure a safer, healthier environment,” he says.

For more information: governmentexecutive.com
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