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Office of Public and Intergovernmental Affairs

Remarks by Former Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould

Graduation Ceremony, Acquisition Internship School
VA Acquistion Academy Frederick, MD
May 11, 2012

Remarks by Deputy Secretary W. Scott Gould Graduation Ceremony, Acquisition Internship School VA Acquistion Academy Frederick, MD May 11, 2012

Thank you, Glenn, for that kind introduction. Let me also acknowledge:

  • Jan Frye, Deputy Assistant Secretary, Office of Acquisition and Logistics, and VA's Senior Procurement Executive;

  • Lisa Doyle, Chancellor, VA Acquisition Academy; Vice Chancellor Joanne Choy; and 2009 Fellows Program Manager David Sella;

  • Jim William, former senior executive at the Internal Revenue Service;

  • Other members of the VA Acquisition Leadership Team;

  • Distinguished guests, fellow Veterans, and most importantly, the graduates of our 2009 Acquisition Fellows program:

Good afternoon to you all, and congratulations to our graduates and their families and friends, on behalf of Secretary Shinseki and the VA leadership.

This is the season for graduations, and the graduation we are celebrating today is no less significant than the graduation of countless other students from college, grad school, law school, business school—you name it. Our graduates here today have completed three long years of class work, internships, exercises, and evaluations. Three things set them apart from most other graduates:

  1. They are already serving their country.

  2. They've earned their diplomas without accumulating a mountain of debt.

  3. They already have jobs—something a lot of other graduates can't say.

So our celebration today should be especially joyful—on account of the great achievement of our graduates and the bright future they have ahead of them.

Their success is also our success—so I'd like to commend the faculty and staff of the VA Acquisition Academy for their outstanding work. Since its founding in 2008, the Academy has trained over 6,900 contract specialists and over 11,400 program managers. Last year, alone, it conducted 144 contracting courses, 250 program management courses, and 124 "contracting officer representative" courses. In its first year, the VA Acquisition Academy received the Office of Management and Budget's Award for Acquisition Excellence. It has followed that up with half a dozen other awards.

Folks, this is the Ivy League of acquisition education. So special thanks to Chancellor Lisa Doyle, Vice Chancellor Joanne Choy, Program Manager David Sella, and the rest of faculty and staff for the care and attention to detail they have put into design of the curriculum and quality of instruction.

Working at VA will be both challenging and rewarding, in part because of the size and scope of our operations:

  • VA is the second largest federal department in number of employees. More than 317,000 good people come to work at VA every day—a third of them Veterans.

  • VA is second only to the Department of Education in providing educational benefits of $10 billion annually.

  • VA is the Nation's 8th largest life insurance enterprise with 7.1 million clients.

  • VA also guarantees nearly 1.6 million home loans.

  • VA operates the country's largest national cemetery system, which, for the past ten years, has been the country's top-rated customer service organization.

  • And, of course, VA also operates the largest integrated healthcare system in the country, with almost 90 million patient visits and $200 million in lab tests per year.

  • We maintain nearly 160 million square feet of real property to house our business operations, on 33,000 acres of land.

Add all that up and you see that VA looks like a Fortune 10 company. We're that big and that complex.

It should come as no surprise, then, that VA is one of the largest procurement and supply agencies in the federal government—over $17 billion for supplies, services, and construction—from pharmaceuticals, medical equipment, and other critical patient-care supplies to major and minor construction and leases.

We are a complex organization working in several of the largest and rapidly changing markets, including healthcare and IT. We speak three languages: the languages of business, government, and medicine. And the expectations of Veterans for customer service and quality of care are changing rapidly as well. We are, above all, an organization with common values and a shared commitment to serving Veterans.

Recognizing the criticality of the acquisition process, VA has reorganized its Office of Acquisition, Logistics, and Construction—under Glenn Haggstrom as VA's Chief Acquisition Officer—into two, clear, and distinct business lines: an Office of Construction and Facilities Management, and an Office of Acquisition and Logistics under Jan Frye, responsible for acquisition planning, procurement, management, and close-out operations.

We are also now using an Integrated Acquisition Management model, based on centralized policy control and decentralized execution. This requires —

  • Great people—trained and certified;

  • Policies that allow us to pool buying power and improve value

  • Enterprise spend management information; and

  • Doctrine that strikes a balance between customer satisfaction and control—enabling our frontline employees to make their own decisions within policies and procedures that ensure transparency, fairness, and value to taxpayers.

In terms of fee-for-services or services exchange, government has historically had an adversarial contracting relationship with the private sector. For those, like me, who have been on the sell side, it's generally agreed that it's both rewarding and frustrating to do business with the public sector.

At VA, we're trying to change that. We are working to realign and redefine our supplier relationships by adopting improvements in the way we interact with industry. We've advanced a more collaborative approach—listening to vendors, fielding webinars, providing Supplier Relationship Training to our employees, consulting more frequently, incorporating contractor suggestions for improvements where we can, and strengthening our alliances overall.

All of this must be done with four important relationships in mind:

  • Veterans—first and foremost;

  • VA clients—program managers who need products and services to get their jobs done;

  • Industry—which provides commercial products and services;

  • Colleagues in Acquisition services, with whom you will work for years.

You'll need to learn to balance the interests of all these under law as you work to accomplish our mission.

We're making progress. In recent surveys, suppliers have praised:

  • Our integrity in doing business;

  • Our record of honoring contract terms;

  • The overall quality of our relationships with suppliers; and

  • Our emphasis on continuous improvement.

On the down side, suppliers complain that some contracting officers still don't know their jobs as well as they should, and the results are:

  • Delays in contract awards and payments;

  • Poor communication with suppliers;

  • A lack of standard procedures, and in some cases;

  • An antagonistic relationship between facility and supplier.

Now we have created the VA Acquisition Academy—to train new acquisition specialists and strengthen the overall professional competence of our Acquisition Corps.

Our graduates today have the best acquisition training available. Training for the whole person, to include psychometric evaluation, emotional intelligence training, communication training, and leadership training, in addition to technical training— so they can become Trusted Business Partners as well as agents of change and leaders in improvement for others in the field.

It's not all on them. VA is also engaged in a "supply chain revolution" involving a number of policy and business process re-engineering efforts to optimize our operations to better serve our Nation's Veterans. Besides improving customer/supplier relationships, we're also working to standardize our products and services mix, improve acquisition processes, and leverage our spend-through strategic sourcing.

With each of these efforts, what we need our newly certified contracting officers to do is help us get from "red" to "green" on our key performance measures like customer satisfaction and help our field personnel accomplish the mission.

This is the best time to be entering the acquisition field, as our improvement efforts gain momentum. There are significant demand, development, and promotion opportunities. A few words of advice:

First, learn to collaborate and make it a habit. When IBM was on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, CEO Lou Gerstner conducted a search for the top 300 performers in IBM's 400,000 workforce—he was looking for the best of the best. Gerstner then surveyed that group to identify their common management-slash-leadership characteristics. What he found was that the number one trait shared by all was that of "collaborator."

The ability to collaborate—to "work well with others"—is an essential element of management excellence, and in establishing and maintaining effective partnerships. Strong collaborative skills impart informal authority—a characteristic that is beneficial and productive whether in business or government.

The better you can work with others, the more influence you will have over how others work. So if you are to be the change agents we intend you to be, you will need to practice collaboration in all of your dealings. Team players make the best change agents. Remember that.

Second bit of advice: Make this day the start of a lifelong commitment to learning. Stay curious. Keep asking questions about the things you don't know or understand. Don't be too quick to accept the simple answers people give to justify doing things the way they've always done them. And don't be afraid to grapple with complex issues in search of a better way. Challenge all assumptions. In doing so, you will make education the lifelong journey that it should be for all of us.

Third thing, wellness: Take care of yourself and others, mentally and physically. More and more of the illnesses Americans suffer are self-inflicted. We see it both among Veterans and among VA employees.

Take advantage of the services offered through ADVANCE. If you haven't already done so, check out the online resources and fill out a personal Health Risk Assessment, or "HRA." Encourage others to do the same. Remember, we can't take care of Veterans if we don't take care of ourselves.

Three more things to remember:

  1. Remember that we serve Veterans. Everything we do is ultimately for Veterans. It's not about us; it's about them.

  2. Remember VA's core values: Integrity, Commitment, Advocacy, Respect, Excellence.

  3. Remember your obligation in the Federal Acquisition Regulation concerning transparency and value.

If you can do all that, I guarantee you'll have a great career with VA.

Congratulations to the administration, faculty, and staff of our VA Acquisition Academy, and thank you for your service to Veterans. Congratulations also to the families and friends of our graduates, who have had a hand in their success. Nobody achieves great things alone. Your support and encouragement has helped make this day possible. Finally, congratulations again to our graduates who have worked so hard to get to this point. We have high hopes for you. Give us your best.

Thank you.