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Chief Acquisition Officer

Department/Agency: Cross-Cutting Management Positions


Chief Acquisition Officer

By Statute, Positions in Twenty-Four Agencies*

Executive Schedule: Other Pay Plan

Major Responsibilities:

  • Monitors the performance of acquisition programs
  •  Increases the use of competition
  • Increases the use of performance–based acquisition
  • Accountable and responsible for acquisition decisions and performance
  • Manages the direction of the agency’s acquisition policy
  • Develops and maintains an adequate professional acquisition workforce

Key Competencies and Preferred Qualifications:

  • Executive experience in both the public and private sectors: 1) managing large projects (e.g., technology, construction) or responsibility for managing a corporate-type supply chain function, 2) defining and achieving performance results, 3) developing, negotiating, delivering and managing successful and complex business arrangements across large organizations with competing interests, 4) building and managing relationships across organizational and functional boundaries, and 5) successfully using strategic resource management to achieve organizational goals
  • Knowledge of the Federal Acquisition Regulations
  • Knowledge of the federal budget, appropriations and legislative, processes
  • Experience in or with government.  This includes working in a previous administration or with government in a private
    sector senior position


The federal government spends almost $450 billion each year through acquisitions.  In order to ensure there was adequate and dedicated oversight of this procurement and spending Congress passed the Services Acquisition Reform Act of 2003. This Act requires the heads of 24 agencies* to designate a non-career Chief Acquisition Officer (CAO) who is accountable and responsible for the agency’s acquisition outcomes and for conducting annual internal control reviews of the acquisition function.  As with the creation of the other “C-suite” jobs (e.g., CFO, CIO), the formalization of the CAO position brought heightened focus to another key agency performance and management function.  

The CAO is expected to collaborate with agency senior leadership, especially the agency Senior Procurement Executive, in building and managing the appropriate business relationships and strategies to achieve mission-based results and comply with statutory, regulatory and policy requirements.  Although the basic responsibilities are the same for all agencies, this position can be very different in some agencies depending on the agency mission and authorizing legislation.  The Department of Homeland Security, for example, has additional acquisition parameters than other agencies.   

The observations by current and former CAOs on their experiences all highlighted the many challenges facing the next CAOs and provide some advice for having a successful job tenure.  While some of these suggestions may seem obvious, they’re generally good management principles, while others are more job-specific.   

Manage the squeeze in discretionary dollars and maintain personnel expertise.
It’s no secret that the current budget environment already has put, and will continue to put, tremendous pressure on discretionary spending, which funds most support operations including the procurement function.  Managing in this environment could be the CAOs’ greatest overall challenge.  This budget squeeze has created an environment where “the workforce is undersized and inexperienced” and, when older experienced staff retire, younger workers have been difficult to hire either because a federal career is not viewed favorably or because vacancies are not filled due to budget constraints.  The CAOs repeatedly cited staffing as a problem noting that the “decimated federal agency workforce is the number one shortfall that [the CAOs] will face” and that “the numbers of those in the acquisition community have not kept up with the burgeoning demands of new contracts.”  With a severely constrained budget and senior leadership’s somewhat understandable pre-disposition to focus on policy and funding for policy-related initiatives, it will be even more difficult to get attention to acquisition issues, particularly those requiring major investments.  

Limit initiatives, keep focus, delegate to staff, and work across the agency.  
A former CAO with experience in several agencies emphasized new CAOs, should “focus on what you want to achieve.  You will be pulled in many directions by staff and others; leave most of the other activity to them and concentrate on your goals.”  This basic survival technique was underscored by another experienced acquisition person who observed “...one frequently gets the sense that the job is about ‘putting out fires’.  Someone coming into the position should recognize that these demands need to be met, but for the long term, he or she should identify a limited number of key changes that need to be made and then remain personally involved in seeing they in fact get carried out.”  As is the case for this and other management jobs, the former incumbents could not say enough good things about the staff, which is a key feature in a job that will require a lot of delegation.  One described them as “strong, dedicated, mission-oriented” noting “career staff can make you successful.”  Another underscored how able he found his staff observing “your staff is experts and they have a lot of good ideas.  If you express to them the goals you’re trying to accomplish they can generally come up with some really effective ways to do it…most of “my” good ideas came from staff.” 

As with the other management jobs, the CAOs surveyed emphasized the need to work across the agency and develop a “strong effective collaboration between program staff and contracting staff to achieve the best results for the agency.”  In addition, by meeting with the other “Chiefs” in the agency and discussing common issues, the CAO will have a better sense of the constraints the others face.  The need for this understanding probably is keenest with the Chief Information Officer (CIO), given rapid technological change and the growing focus on IT security, and CFO.  Several Chief Acquisition Officers (CAOs), said one way to help make this collaboration happen was to ensure that the CAO “has a seat at the table when senior agency leadership make decisions [that affect] acquisition support and major programs.” 

In addition to the Inspector General (IG), get to know the key oversight people outside your agency.   
This means the staff at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the General Accountability Office (GAO), and on the relevant congressional budget and authorizing committees.  Within the agency, establishing a good relationship with the IG was mentioned several times by the CAOs who commented for this profile.  “Get to know the agency IG before the IG gets to know [you]” was the warning.  Reaching out to GAO and the oversight committees on this Hill” also was a constant theme. In OMB, the Deputy Director for Management (DDM), who has the lead for management initiatives in the government, and the Administrator for the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP), who reports to the DDM, are the two people the CAO should know.

Additional views of the job and advice.
The CAOs had a variety of advice for the next people to occupy their chairs.  A sample of comments follows:  

  • On problems.  “There will be problems; don’t let them fester.  Take issues up the line as soon as possible to alert the [agency head] and plan for resolution.”
  • On managing contracts. “From an external standpoint, poorly run contracts can cause all kinds of reviewers from the Hill, to the Government Accountability Office, to the Inspector General to call into question the effectiveness of agency leadership.  These types of issues can quickly cause outside reviewers to raise doubts about all aspects of how an agency is being run making it that much more difficult to accomplish the goals that an agency has set for itself.” And “…acquisition issues, while in the forefront of negative press, will be in the background of agency management attention.”
  • On the CAO Council.  Be involved.  “Established in statute, the CAO Council is the principal interagency forum for monitoring and improving the federal acquisition system.  Chaired by the OMB, and lead by OMB’s Administrator of OFPP, the goal of the Council is to help each agency ensure that its acquisition function exceeds expected performance.  Among the Council’s functions are developing recommendations for OMB and OFPP that include promoting practices that deliver best value for the government as well as identifying, developing, and coordinating multi-agency projects to improve the acquisition system.”
  • On the acquisition process. “The CAO should have a good grasp of the of the federal acquisition process (the lifecycle, not just the contracting part of the process) and how it differs from that in the private sector as well as a thorough understanding of ethics and conflict-of-interest rules that surround the federal acquisition process.”  Staff will often tell you that your or another’s idea for change is not possible due to law or regulation; question this assertion.” And “Don’t accept ‘it can’t be done’... there are good people out there who know how to get things done within the limits of law and regulations.”
  • On patience.  “Be patient…it takes time to develop and implement acquisition initiatives and to see the results.  If you try to force things through without building the needed support, your initiatives will be out the door soon after you are.  The most effective way to build a successful initiative is to make it part of the culture of the organization and that doesn’t happen over night.”
* By statute, only the agencies that are required to have a Chief Financial Officer are required to appoint a Chief Acquisition Officer:  Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, Agency for International Development, Environmental Protection Agency, GSA, NASA, NSF, Nuclear Regulatory Commission, OPM, SBA, Social Security.  

Key Relationships – Within the Department or Agency:

The Secretary and Deputy Secretary
Senior Procurement Executive
Other agency “Chiefs” (e.g., CFO, CIO, CHCO)
Inspector GeneralProgram offices (e.g., assistant secretaries or equivalent) and career staff in the CAO office, including the Acquisition Career Manager

Key Relationships – Within the Government:

The Office of Management and Budget (e.g., Office of Federal Procurement Policy)
The Government Accountability Office
Other agency CAOs (at least via the CAO Council chaired by OMB)
General Services Administration
Office of Personnel Management

Key Relationships – Outside the Government:

National Contract Management Association
Staff of the authorizing and appropriations committees as well as the government oversight and reform committees
Partnership for Public Service

Nomination Referred to:

Senate confirmation not required.
Nominated by Department or Agency head.