Swell in Contracting Officers May Not Keep Pace With Retirements

By Stephen Barr
Tuesday, May 6, 2008; D04

The number of contracting officers in the government increased to 28,434 in 2007, up 6.8 percent since the Bush administration began, officials said yesterday.

But how many contracting officers the government actually needs has not been determined, despite efforts by federal agencies, the Office of Personnel Management and the OMB over the past two years to develop plans for hiring and training contracting officers and specialists.

“We are still working real hard with OPM and the departments to try to figure out what the right number is,” said Paul A. Denett, an Office of Management and Budget official in charge of government procurement policy.

For his part, Denett added, “I believe we need to increase the hiring even more.”

Members of Congress have been concerned that the government has not done enough planning to get a handle on staffing and training needs of employees.

Spending on contracts has surged since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to more than $400 billion a year.

As the numbers have increased, some agencies have found it difficult to manage their contracts to avert fraud and abuse.

For example, a 2007 independent commission on Army contracting, headed by acquisition expert Jacques S. Gansler, found that the Army’s contracting operations in the Iraq and Afghanistan war zones were not properly staffed, supported and trained.

Other studies have pointed out that statistics about the acquisition workforce have not been collected in a consistent fashion, creating some confusion about the status of the workforce. Experts have emphasized that personnel cuts, ordered by Congress in the 1990s, left many acquisition employees overworked or without necessary training.

In recent years, Congress and the Bush administration have tried to learn more about federal acquisition, with officials paying more attention to an annual demographic report on the acquisition workforce. The report is prepared by the Federal Acquisition Institute, which has published workforce data since 1977.

Yesterday, the OMB and the institute released the 2007 report, showing an increase of about 500 contracting officers in the government last year compared with the previous year. Most — 19,119 — worked for the Defense Department, with an additional 9,315 spread across the rest of the government.

According to the report, the number of contracting officers has been rising steadily since 2002, primarily in civilian agencies, where numbers increased from 7,995 in 2000 to the high of 9,315 last year.

But retirements are a concern, Denett said. The average age of contracting officers is 46, and about half of acquisition employees are eligible to retire within the next 10 years. Actual retirements are at a lower rate now, allowing agencies to stay on top of their turnover. Only 18 percent of contracting officers eligible for retirement are filing retirement claims, said Karen Pica, director of the institute.

The OMB is promoting an internship program to attract young people with business degrees into federal acquisition to help counter the loss of contracting officers and ensure that experienced hands pass along their knowledge to interns.

The government also is trying to track the careers of acquisition professionals and learn why some leave their jobs and move to related fields, such as general business and program management.

Preliminary data collected for the report showed that 444 contracting officers left their jobs in 2007 for other government posts. An additional 1,083 are no longer in the government because of retirement, death and other reasons, such as taking a job in the private sector.

And the Winners Are . . .

The National Capital Area Chapter of the American Society for Public Administration presents its annual awards Thursday to honor public service and efforts to improve government performance. This year’s winners are:

Kathryn E. Newcomer, associate director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University, will receive the Elmer B. Staats Award for Accountability in Government.

Timothy B. Clark, editor in chief of Government Executive magazine, will receive the David O. Cooke Award for Leadership in Public Service.

The Partnership for Public Service will receive the National Capital Area Chapter President’s Award for Outstanding Recent Contributions to Public Service. Max Stier, president of the partnership, will accept the award on behalf of the nonprofit organization.

Stephen Barr’s e-mail address isbarrs@washpost.com.

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