In the iconic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her new
friends Scarecrow and Tin Man brave Lions and tigers and bears, oh
my! Why take on the risk?
All three are driven by a quest for something bigger than
themselves, yet fundamentally a part of them. For Dorothy, of
course, it is reconnection with loved ones back home. For
Scarecrow, it is the wisdom of a brain. For Tin Man, it is the
compassion of a beating heart. Each is compelled to follow the
Yellow Brick Road, moving forward in the face of ominous risksreal
and imaginedto reach the Emerald City. What enables them to do so?
Exactly the trait that Lion, who eventually joins them on their
quest, is seeking: courage.
This classic tale came to mind recently as I contemplated the deep,
dark forest of budget, performance, and accountability challenges
and expectations looming before those in public management during
these economically trying times. Agencies are recognizing that, in
meeting these challenges and expectations, they must look to their
professional acquisition workforce. Congress seems to be
recognizing this idea, too. Acquisition professionals, already a
besieged lot, need the wherewithal to be up to the task. From what
Ive seen, the heart is there, the wisdom is coming, and the courage
A Tough Job in Any Time
Consider for a moment the headlines you read each morning about
what the federal government is, or isnt, doing with your
hard-earned money. Homeland security. Cyber security. Healthcare
reform. Energy reform. Education reform. Environmental protection.
The list goes on.
These major undertakings go through an extensive funding process.
The U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB) develops and
executes the federal budget and, once Congress reviews and approves
the budget, OMB allocates funding and ensures it is used in line
with the administrations decisions, policies, and priorities. The
U.S. General Accountability Office (GAO), an independent,
nonpartisan agency, plays a significant role as well. As Congresss
watchdog, it oversees how the federal government is spending these
approved taxpayer dollars.
How are dollars spent and big initiatives carried out? Through
agency programs, by and large. Those programs are typically
colossal in scope and complexitymade up of many individual
projects, like so many small cogs in a huge wheel.
So whos on the front line, being held accountable for making sure
the work involved in conducting a program and its multiplicity of
projects actually gets done? Acquisition professionalsthose
responsible for planning, scheduling, and managing all the programs
and projects undertaken as well as acquiring all the products and
services needed to launch them and bring them in for a safe
If you simply look at it from one angle, you might say these
professionals have the privilege of being part of some of the
coolest undertakings in Americamodernizing our air traffic control
systems, keeping our food supply safe, cleaning up nuclear energy
sites, improving services to the dedicated men and women of our
U.S. Armed Services, and so on. Youll also see, however, that it
can be an incredibly daunting job.
Whats smaller than it was 20 years ago (and expected to shrink
perhaps by half over the next seven years) but handles three times
as much work as then, most of it of far greater complexity?
If you said the federal acquisition workforce, youre right. That
workforce is overseeing $500 billion in contract spending in 2010
alone. However, staffing has been pared down to the bone over the
past decade or so, in part through the outsourcing of some of its
responsibilities. And now, nearly 50 percent of todays federal
acquisition professionals will be eligible to retire by 2017.
So theres an attrition problem and a brain-drain problem. Think
about what the job entails, especially if youre the individual at
the top of the responsibility pyramid: the program manager. You
need to plan, coordinate, implement, and direct all aspects of a
major capital investment from beginning to end.
Not all that tough, you say? Well, pepper in some ill-defined
requirements. Stir in some borrowed human resources with
conflicting priorities set by their boss. Add a dab of mission
creep. Insert an overzealous politician or two. Chop the program
budget by 15 or 20 percent. And just to make things more
interesting, remove the original stakeholders and replace them
every couple of years with others who may have no interest in or
understanding of the program whatsoever.
The job of program manager, and any other acquisition professional,
can be overwhelming and frustrating scarce resources, little
recognition, less support.
A Tougher Job in These Times
Tough in any environment, the job has only become tougher because
agency budgets have shrunk, scrutiny has intensified, and demands
for performance and accountability have ratcheted up. Lets take a
look at the bigger picture.
Today, the United States has a mounting public-debt crisis. As the
economy struggles to find its footing, tax dollars fail to stretch
far enough. Soon, entitlement programs such as Social Security and
Medicare will be on life support. In January 2010, OMB Deputy
Director Rob Nabors declared, The fiscal trajectory were on is not
sustainable. Therefore, the administration is making tough
financial decisions; its feet held to the fire by Congress and the
As agency budgets are slashed, agency officials must determine
where to reduce and what to cut altogether. Program managers and
other acquisition professionals are feeling the heat as greater
fiscal discipline is imposed. Theyre the ones on the line to
justify what needs to be spent and to ind ways to complete projects
Demands for Performance and Accountability
For the past two decades, Congress and the executive branch have
taken steps to redirect the focus of agency activities and the
acquisition operations that support them. The emphasis has shifted
from ensuring compliance with rules and regulations to ensuring
performanceachieving desired, demonstrable results
President Clinton led the Reinventing Government Initiative and
signed the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) into law.
The Bush administration pressed the Presidents Management Agenda
(PMA) and assessed programs with the Program Assessment Rating Tool
(PART). The Obama administration has now instituted a series of
reforms, called the Accountable
Government Initiative, with the aim of improving the governments
performance and accountability.
Eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse in government has been a
constant refrain for decades. But given the federal budget-deficit
picture, it has taken on an increasingly urgent tone. Demands for
achieving a balance between what the government spends and the
value the public receives have climbed to higher and higher
Congress, the administration, and the American public have come to
expect a more transparent view into how taxpayer dollars are being
spent and what is being accomplished. As acting OMB Director
Jeffrey Zients recently acknowledged in a memo to all federal
senior executives: There is a distinct role for government in
addressing [our countrys] challenges, but the American people have
doubts about the governments capacity to do so effectively and
Hence a proliferation of OMB web-based dashboards aimed at giving
politicians, senior executive officials, and the public alike the
means of holding governmentand government employeesaccountable.
- USAspending.gov; which shows, agency by agency, where taxpayer
dollars are going
- Performance.gov; which is a forthcoming one-stop shop for
federal performance information
- Data.gov; which provides a window into the activities of each
agency and sub-agency.
Government agencies and their senior officials have never been
under a brighter spotlight. Program delivery is out; program
performance is in. Complacency is out; transparency is in. The
Emerald City of the East syndromeas cynical pundits have referred
to Washingtons penchant for throwing money at ineffective programs
that run on for years, even decadesmay finally be on its way to
becoming a thing of the past.
Life in a Fishbowl
What does it all mean for project managers and other acquisition
professionals? Theyre used to being under-staffed, under-supported,
and blamed for the inevitable failures. Edicts to cut contract
spending, weed out inefficiencies, eliminate the use of high-risk
contracting vehicles (noncompetitive contracts, cost-plus
contracts, and so forth), reduce outsourced labor costs, and the
like are no news to them.
Now, in addition to shouldering these demands, it is as though
acquisition professionals are expected to do so with someone
constantly looking over their shoulders and expecting them to
report and justify all their actions and decisions. Further, in
addition to being asked to identify and mitigate all the risks
associated with their programsto ensure results, results,
resultstheyre expected to do so now. (We need to launch by
And what if they dont have the capability or resources? Theyre
looking at the strong possibility of a higher-upsor GAOsquick
decision to pull the plug on their project or pull the plug on
them. Its enough to make you wonder why anyone in their right mind
would want this job in the current environment. Think Scarecrow,
Tin Man, and Lion.
No doubt about it: Working in acquisition management can be
daunting and demoralizing. Yet, I have found those in the federal
acquisition workforce to be one of the most passionate, dedicated
groups of professionals with which Ive been honored to associate in
Ive observed how the opportunity to work on some larger than life
endeavors compels many to do what they do. Beyond that, most have
hearts that are wired to serve. As management oracle Ken Blanchard
would say, an inherent servant leadership orientation keeps them
focused on doing what it takes to deliver for the American people,
and a warrior spirit wills them to succeed amidst all the evidence
that says they cant. Not to mention, a fun-loving attitude that
keeps their spirits high even when the chips are down!
Nevertheless, passion and dedication alone wont do it. As Karen
Evans, OMBs administrator for EGovernment under the Bush
administration, put it: You cant will a project to succeed. No
matter how much heart and soul you put into your efforts, you need
an organizational environment that supports your endeavors.
If theres a Glinda the Good Witch in Washington, D.C., her spirit
dwells in the hallways of OMBs Office of Federal Procurement Policy
(OFPP) and the Federal Acquisition Institute (FAI) it established.
These two organizations have been working feverishly to identify
the competencies the acquisition workforce needs to succeed amidst
tightening budgets, heightened performance expectations, and
increased accountabilityand, even more importantly, make training
available to these professionals so they can more readily acquire
them. Those competencies can be summed up in two words: business
In 2007, Paul A. Denett, then OFPP administrator, instituted the
Federal Acquisition Certification for Program and Project Managers
(FAC-P/PM), which complements parallel certifications for
contracting specialists and contracting officers technical
representatives (COTRs). FAI established an accompanying training
At the center of the certification process are four
business-oriented competenciesstrategic thinking, external
awareness, entrepreneurship, and visionthat all federal acquisition
professionals need to make informed, intelligent decisions
regarding an agencys major capital investments (see Figure 1). Each
competency assumes a big-picture perspective. Managers must grasp
the environmental factors facing their agencies, and understand how
their actions can contribute to the organizations performance
The VA Is in the Vanguard
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and its VA Acquisition
Academy (VAAA) are leading the movement within civilian agencies to
improve acquisition performance and build the business acumen of
the departments acquisition professionals.
As greater numbers of troops return from deployment, the VA must
step up its ability to deliver the services they need and deserve.
VAs secretary, retired four-star general Eric Shinseki, has
launched several major initiatives in response, including
Eliminating Veteran Homelessness, Enabling 21st Century Benefits
Delivery and Services, and Automation of the GI Bill.
Rather than will these initiatives to succeed, Deputy Secretary
Scott Gould has initiated a $60 million investment to improve the
capability of the VA acquisition workforce to support their
successful delivery and, over time, improve the organizations
capability to manage the taxpayer funds entrusted to it.
Through the leadership of Chancellor Lisa Doyle and Vice Chancellor
Richard Garrison, VAAA has embarked on a Project Performance
Improvement Program. The program centers around three weeks of
intensive training based on the FAC-P/PM certification model. Its
mission is not merely training and certificationits performance
improvement. The goal is to capture and perpetuate lessons learned
to improve business processes over time and create sustainable
In conjunction with the training program, each acquisition
professional, with oversight and support from his supervisor, is
being held accountable for creating and implementing a tailored
action plan. Each must identify a needed strategic change, build a
business case around it, and commit to implementation.
All in all, some 15,000 acquisition professionals across the VA
will participate, working collaboratively, to broaden the
organizations communication capabilities. In making this vast
investment, VA is betting that as sound processes and practices are
identified and shared, and honed and repeated over time, the
resulting momentum will transform the agencys performance
Congress Has Recognized the Need
Within Congress, the Subcommittee on Oversight of Government
Management, the Federal Workforce, and the District of Columbia,
led by Senator Daniel Akaka, has recognized the criticality of
augmenting the ranks and improving the skills of the federal
acquisition workforce. Similar leadership is being offered by
Senators Susan Collins, George Voinovich, and Tom Carpe.
Demonstrating Heart, Wisdom, and Courage
In this world, you cant magically click your heels and complete the
hard work of improving government. As the old adage goes, the
harder you work, the luckier you will get.
Last year the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) became the only
agency whose program, the multibillion dollar Air Traffic
Modernization Program, was removed from the GAO High Risk List. To
achieve this, not only did the FAA have to address the gaps within
the actual program, it also had to address broader organizational
factorscultural barriers, program management processes, and
acquisition related issues that collectively had thrust this major
program into trouble and kept it on the High Risk List for almost
In sharing FAAs story with other agencies, Bob Rovinsky, FAAs
Director of IT Enterprise Management, validates the need for heart,
wisdom, and courage in pointing out lessons the agency learned in
- HeartIdentify champions at three organizational levels who are
passionate about serving their constituents better by improving the
- WisdomImplement a hard-hitting, comprehensive, point-by-point
plan that identifies and addresses organizational impediments to
improving performance. Make the plan transparent to the agency,
OMB, and GAO.
- CourageKeep working to overcome peoples natural reluctance to
confront the organizational issues that must be addressed in
improving budgeting, cost estimating, program management, and all
other processes within the acquisition life cycle.
Every time I witness the extraordinary efforts under way at the VA,
FAA, and other agencies, I am strengthened in my conviction that
building the business acumen of the acquisition workforce must be a
cornerstone of any initiative to improve organizational performance
through increased fiscal discipline and individual accountability.
Winston Churchill once stated, Courage is what it takes to stand up
and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen. It
sounds like both are beginning to happen within all levels of