Contractors bemoan delays as rookie U.S. buyers learn the ropes

July 29, 2012

Claudine Adams, the president of a small technology contractor in Maryland, walked into a routine meeting at an Army base in April and was surprised to find herself face-to-face with three government attorneys.

It wasn’t the start of a legal dispute. Instead, it appeared the lawyers were there to keep acquisition officials from saying too much, said Adams, who has worked in government contracting for more than 20 years.

“They’re going to the lawyers because they’re inexperienced,” she said in a phone interview.

The federal workforce charged with awarding more than $500 billion in contracts annually isn’t as seasoned as it was a decade ago, according to government data. Almost a third of the government’s acquisition officers had less than five years of experience in their jobs last year, compared with 6.8 percent in 2001, the data showed.

The lack of experience, most pronounced at the Pentagon, has delayed contracts and also may have contributed to rookie mistakes that have prompted protests, according to contractors and attorneys who represent them.

Contract mistakes

Contracting officers frequently haven’t mastered basic federal acquisition rules, said John Chierichella, a partner in Sheppard Mullin Richter & Hampton’s Washington office who has practiced procurement law since 1975. It’s an increasing problem, he said.

A vendor he represented in 2009 filed a protest after the Pentagon excluded it from a multibillion-dollar contract for technology services. The company, which Chierichella declined to identify, objected to the government’s cost analysis. It ended up that acquisition officials had not conducted one, and his client was awarded the contract after the delay.

“Too often, mistakes are being made that I find surprising,” he said in a phone interview. “They don’t seem to have the experience to know that when you ignore a mandatory requirement, you’re asking for trouble.”

Congress has recognized the need to educate the acquisition workforce. It allocated about $1.8 billion to a fund created in 2008 for hiring and training acquisition workers, according to a June report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress’s investigative arm. The fund had been used to hire about 5,855 people and add 19,000 classroom seats at the Defense Acquisition University through Sept. 30, the report stated.

The Defense Department since 2009 has made “significant progress in rebuilding the capacity of the acquisition workforce,” Cheryl Irwin, a spokeswoman for the Pentagon, said in an e-mail. “While some additional growth may be possible, other initiatives will continue emphasis on building the qualifications of the workforce we have.’’

Army attorneys at the command where Adams’s company is a contractor “provide legal guidance to government officials during the acquisition process whenever that guidance is requested by a program manager or contracting officer,” Andricka Thomas, a spokeswoman for the service, said in an e-mail.

Contract spending

The number of workers classified as contracting professionals increased 27 percent to 33,274 in 10 years, according to data compiled by the Office of Personnel Management. That growth failed to match the increase in spending on contracts, which more than doubled to $535 billion in the year ended Sept. 30, from $221 billion in fiscal 2001, according to federal procurement data.

The Defense Department had the highest share of contracting employees with less than five years of service, at 34 percent. It was followed by the Department of Veterans Affairs, with 33 percent, and the Department of Homeland Security, at 32 percent.

The lowest rates were at the departments of Agriculture and of Housing and Urban Development, both at about 13 percent.

The Defense Department, which accounts for about 70 percent of contract spending, didn’t have a large-enough workforce to handle the boom in awards, said Jacques Gansler, a professor at the University of Maryland and a former top Pentagon weapons buyer.

“The solution was, ‘Let’s quickly go out and hire a bunch of interns,’ ” he said in a phone interview. “I think they should have also hired some experienced people.”

One consequence is that inexperienced government buyers are selecting vendors that meet minimum quality standards and offer the lowest price, instead of picking proposals that represent the best overall value, said Gansler, who is on the boards of defense contractors iRobot and TASC.

“Would you get your heart surgeon on the basis of someone with a medical degree and the lowest hourly rate?” he said. “That’s what the government’s doing.”

Contractors were reluctant to discuss the performance of acquisition officers for the government, in many cases their biggest customer. Companies such as Lockheed Martin, based in Bethesda, and General Dynamics, based in Falls Church, declined to discuss the issue or did not respond to requests for comment.

“We do not comment on the performance or processes of our customers,” Randy Belote, a spokesman for Falls Church-based Northrop Grumman, said in an e-mail.

Aberdeen meeting

For Adams, the meeting with contracting officials at Aberdeen Proving Ground near Aberdeen, Md., was a reminder of how much the process of working with the government has changed.

She attended the meeting because her 180-employee company, Waldorf-based Adams Communication & Engineering Technology, is among the 18 vendors eligible for contracts under a $16 billion Army contract for engineering services. All the companies on the contract meet with Army officials about once every four months, she said.

Awards under the contract take longer than they did in the past, she said.

Adams said she asked a contracting officer when the Army planned to issue an award for a specific order under the contract. After consulting with an attorney, the contracting officer told her the information couldn’t be released, she said.

“It’s an information black hole,” Adams said. “Before, experienced contracting officers and contract specialists would give you some idea of where things were in the procurement process so you could plan ahead.”

— Bloomberg Government

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