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Toward Building the DOD Acquisition Workforce of the Twenty-First Century —Recommendations from the Section 809 Panel on Professional Development

Darryl Scott and Dina Thompson • Jan 2019

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The Section 809 Panel was established by Congress[1] to address a fundamental problem: The way the Department of Defense (DOD) purchased what it needed to equip its warfighters was from another era—one in which the global strategic landscape was entirely different.

Today, the United States’ ability to maintain technological, military, and economic superiority is being challenged because its adversaries are rapidly modernizing their militaries with an eye toward exploiting U.S. vulnerabilities and negating traditional U.S. advantages. Congress became concerned that DOD had not fully adjusted to the pace of this environment, nor had it adjusted to a marketplace that bears no resemblance to that of just a few decades ago. To address the problem, Congress charged the Panel with reshaping the DOD acquisition system into one that is bold, simple, and effective.

The Success of Acquisition Reform Hinges on the DOD Acquisition Workforce

In January 2017, the Panel sent an interim report to Congress that identified the DOD acquisition workforce as a pivotal factor in the success of acquisition reform. In the report, the Panel stated:

The ultimate effectiveness and efficiency of defense acquisition depends on and is determined by the people who are responsible for all phases of acquisition.[2]

Accordingly, the Panel concluded it should address the workforce in its analysis and recommendations. U.S. national security relies on harnessing the efforts of “the innovative and the inventive, the brilliant and the bold” in the service of the nation.

Subsequently, the Panel issued three overarching recommendations in its June 2018 Volume 2 report to Congress for improving the management of the DOD acquisition workforce:

  1. Amend the framework of hiring authorities to maximize hiring flexibility for critical skill gaps;
  2. Convert a temporary personnel system to a permanent, mandatory system for the entire acquisition workforce; and
  3. Ensure the Defense Acquisition Workforce Development Fund is properly funded and managed to guarantee its benefits for the acquisition workforce indefinitely.[3]

These recommendations are intended to ensure DOD will possess the tools and resources necessary to continuously improve its acquisition workforce.   

However, tools and resources alone are not enough to guarantee success for members of the acquisition workforce. The Panel’s outreach to stakeholders in DOD and the private sector confirmed that “career development” needed to be a focus of its recommendations. In their eyes, a reshaped future acquisition workforce would likely consist of an open career development model that could include experience in both the government and the private sector. They also agreed that if DOD is to achieve its ambitions for its acquisition workforce, it will need to prepare and develop its workforce members differently. But how?

Developing the Acquisition Workforce

How should DOD develop its acquisition workforce from the time an individual enters the workforce until he or she separates or retires? What occupational qualifications and competency measures should DOD implement for each acquisition workforce member to facilitate his or her career progression and development? How do members know what skills they need or what key work experiences they should pursue to meet their goals? Do members possess enough specific domain knowledge (i.e., within a specialized discipline) and concrete experience to fulfill their responsibilities properly? Is DOD adequately identifying, cultivating, and elevating members with the most talent and the greatest potential? Do those members enjoy a perspective that is broad enough to interact with the private sector successfully? How can DOD guarantee that members’ skills and development needs are evaluated based upon measurable competencies and not just academic course participation and time in a position?

Volume 3 recommendations focus precisely on these types of workforce development issues. The Panel proposes changes to DOD’s career development framework for acquisition workforce members around three crucial aspects of career development (refer to FIGURE 1).

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1) Professional Certifications

The current three-level certification system—i.e., DOD’s implementation of the Defense Acquisition Workforce Improvement Act (DAWIA)[4]—has been a central feature in the professionalization of the DOD acquisition workforce over the past three decades. Today, most members of the acquisition workforce have four-year college degrees and meet minimum time requirements in an acquisition-related position for their career fields. However, DAWIA implementation falls short by not linking certification levels to occupational qualifications that members can demonstrate on the job. The Panel therefore recommends that DOD modernize the certification process to emphasize professional skills that are transferable across government and industry by relying more on professional certifications and by focusing on a defined set of occupational qualifications connected to positions.

Specifically, the Panel recommends amending DAWIA to require professional certifications based on nationally or internationally recognized standards (when possible). This will allow both DOD and industry to—

  • Adopt a common body of knowledge,
  • Improve communication and collaboration between the two,
  • Increase the applicant pool, and
  • Further raise the professionalism of the DOD acquisition workforce.

Refer to FIGURE 2 for three examples of professional certification programs based on nationally or internationally recognized standards. 

The Panel also recommends eliminating the statutory mandate for 24 hours of business credit for contracting and auditing for acquisition workforce members. Since most members now have four-year degrees, the Panel believes it is no longer necessary to mandate specific disciplines’ education requirements in law, and DOD should have latitude to hire candidates with other degrees, such as data analytics. In fact, specific credit requirements may hinder hiring managers’ ability to choose the right person for a job.

2) Functional Area Career Paths and Competencies

DOD acquisition workforce members can spend their entire careers without the benefit of a comprehensive functional area career path to guide their career development. The Panel recommends DOD create career paths in each functional area that would include technical competencies, key work experiences, and leadership and other “soft skills” in addition to education and training. Doing so will provide guidance for acquisition workforce members and their supervisors so they can become proactive stewards of their careers. 

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Career paths would provide members and their supervisors’ guidance to help determine what each member needs to be successful in his or her career. Career paths not only illustrate career possibilities to members but are also necessary to ensure that qualified members are available to fill positions that require particular qualifications to accomplish a unit’s mission. An illustrative long-range career path would include jobs of increasing complexity, responsibility, and accountability—as well as management and leadership opportunities. They describe the occupational qualifications (i.e., education, training, and competencies) and key work experiences[5] required to advance. Career advancement does not mean “race to the top”; rather, it is growing skills to enhance mission success and fulfill the members’ aspirations.

  • Competency Models

    The Panel recommends changes in statute and guidance to require competency models with proficiency standards that include technical and nontechnical skills for the acquisition workforce. Task competencies are methods for a member to demonstrate individual task or task elements specific to the member’s current position to qualify the member in “an observable, measurable pattern of knowledge, abilities, skills, and other characteristics that individuals need to perform work roles or occupational functions successfully.”[6] Task competencies assist the member’s development by using specific, mission-related tasks and requiring supervisor feedback to identify any training gaps. Each acquisition workforce member should be observed by a more senior acquisition professional for each task competency using a proficiency standard at each stage in his or her career. Competencies may be gained through education, training, or experience.

  • Proficiency Standards

    Proficiency standards are distinct formal descriptions of levels of expertise within a competency that describe the member’s ability to execute a task successfully and are used as an occupational qualification measure. Consider the analogy of aircraft pilots. New cadet-pilots are gradually introduced to increasingly complex skills under the guidance of instructor pilots (IPs). The IP must observe the cadet successfully perform a skill or maneuver to specific standards before certifying that the cadet can move on to learn new skills. Only when the cadet has demonstrated to the IP that he or she can handle the aircraft without supervision are they allowed to solo. When veteran pilots move to a different aircraft, or return to flying after an extended period away, they go through the same process. Although they may not have to recertify on basic flight principles, they must demonstrate to a flight examiner who is experienced and current in the particular aircraft that they are qualified to fly that type of aircraft safely. Similarly, acquisition workforce members should demonstrate task competencies at the required proficiency standard for a particular job to a more senior acquisition workforce member that is qualified and experienced in those skills in order to be considered qualified to perform duties requiring those skills.

Competency models with proficiency standards will not only help acquisition workforce members manage their professional development better, but will also permit employers to better match candidates to jobs. Proficiency standards would show how a member actually demonstrates the job tasks, and to what level of proficiency, rather than just cataloging how many years a member has held an acquisition position. By knowing what proficiency is expected of a member of the acquisition workforce in the future, the member and his or her supervisors can plan how to fulfill his or her development needs when creating “Individual Development Plans.” At the military department/DOD agency or unit level,[7] hiring activities would have a method to effectively qualify a member using a set of competencies so they can effectively determine the person’s “fit” for the next job.

Competencies should be vested in individuals and individuals should be matched to missions, instead of having static occupations define both.

3) Public/Private Exchange Programs

The relationship between the acquisition workforce within DOD and its counterpart in the private sector is a critical element in the success of the defense acquisition system. It is important that DOD members and private-sector members understand each other’s processes, attitudes, and objectives. A public/private exchange program (PPEP) is a valuable tool for DOD to utilize to foster such understanding. If implemented properly, PPEPs can form a cornerstone of DOD’s efforts to engage with the private sector. Historically, however, DOD has struggled to successfully develop a broad-based, two-way PPEP that involves all functional disciplines in the acquisition workforce.

The problem is not political—there is widespread support among DOD officials and the Congress for PPEPs; however, DOD has been unable to create an adequate program despite its genuine desire to do so. For example, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) manages a Title 5 exchange program called “Training with Industry,” the Army also has a “Training with Industry” program, and the Air Force has an “Education with Industry” program. While these programs have achieved some success in placing DOD acquisition workforce members in industry, none of these programs provide a two-way exchange, and because the OSD-led program is open to all DOD civilian workforce members, the number of opportunities for acquisition workforce members is very small. 

A successful two-way PPEP between the public and private sectors would be valuable for DOD and industry alike, but structural disincentives undermine support for PPEPs among three critical stakeholders. Therefore, the Panel recommendations for PPEPs are designed to overcome these disincentives. (Refer to FIGURE 3.) 

Conclusion

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All of the Section 809 Panel’s workforce recommendations address current problems in acquisition workforce policy directly and offer concrete solutions to overcome them. As rapid transformation of the defense acquisition sector continues, DOD will require a professional, talented, experienced, and broad-minded workforce to succeed on the warfighter’s behalf. The Panel possesses the utmost confidence that DOD can develop a workforce, built upon the dedication and passion of its members, to regain and maintain the technical dominance upon which our national security relies. CM

Darryl Scott

  • Commissioner, Section 809 Panel
  • Retired from The Boeing Company in 2010 as its Corporate Vice President of Contracts
  • 34-year career in the U.S. Air Force, retiring as a major general
  • Served as Director of the Defense Contract Management Agency
  • Member, NCMA Board of Advisors
  • President, NCMA Washington DC Chapter

Dina Thompson, CPCM

  • Deputy Assistant Administrator for Contracting and Procurement, U.S. Transportation Security Administration
  • Previously served as Senior Research Analyst and Team Leader supporting the Section 809 Panel
  • Nearly 30 years of Army Operational Contracting and Policy experience

Endnotes

[1] Through passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2016 (Pub. L. 114-92).

[2] Section 809 Panel Interim Report (May 2017): 26, available at https://section809panel.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/05/Sec809Panel_Interim-Report_May2017_FINAL-for-web.pdf.

[3] Section 809 Panel Volume 2 Report (June 2018): § 2, available at https://section809panel.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/Sec809Panel_Vol2-Report_June2018.pdf.

[4] 10 USC Chapter 87.

[5] For purposes of this recommendation, the Panel defines key work experiences as interactions inside and outside of government that foster professional development and career broadening (e.g., rotational assignments, temporary assignments, managerial and leadership experience, defense joint/service/agency collaboration, and simulation/exercise engagement).

[6] DOD Instruction 1400.25, Volume 250, USD(P&R), “DOD Civilian Personnel Management System: Civilian Strategic Human Capital Planning (SHCP)” (June 7, 2016): 21.

[7] In this context, a “unit” is a level of organization below the military department/defense agency. It is usually associated with a command led by a flag officer. Designation of the unit to participate in the development of competency and proficiency standards is left to the military department/defense agency.