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Shopping for Uncle Sam Federal acquisition courses teach the art of spending taxpayer dollars wisely Patti Pace was an executive assistant sitting in on high-level meetings when she realized she wanted a different seat at the table. Pace, who had worked in government, on Capitol Hill and for a nonprofit, wanted to be the one giving advice and making decisions on how to best use resources. “At any government agency or organization, it all comes down to the budget and how to efficiently manage your budget — and now, how to do more with less money,” says Pace, 35, of Silver Spring. The federal government spends more than $400 billion each year on sanitizer and satellites, ketchup and cars, toilet paper and tanks, engineers and engine builders. Behind every decision is a small army of people who decide what to buy and from where to buy it. These are the professional buyers who painstakingly research the options that get the most bang for our tax bucks. Working on acquisitions for the federal government means having a say in what goods and services agencies buy, says Jacques Gansler, who heads a new program offered by the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy (umd.edu) that lets Master of Public Policy students specialize in federal acquisition. To help train workers to meet the demands of slashed federal budgets and the need for more efficient spending, Maryland began offering the four-course specialization in its Master of Public Policy program last year. As the Defense Department’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics from 1997
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to 2001, Gansler oversaw a $180 billion budget. “Everything you and I buy, the government also buys,” he says of the huge amounts of pens and printer paper and light bulbs needed to keep our government running. “Except they also [buy] things we wouldn’t, like nuclear power plants, tanks and planes.” Pace, who expects to graduate from the Maryland program next spring, hopes to become a contracting officer. “I have always felt a desire to serve in the government, and there’s a real need for young people to step up and take leadership roles,” she says. Federal acquisition, she reasoned, seemed like a concrete career skill. “It’s [about] how we meet our goals in a smart and innovative way,” she says. “There’s no vision of the future that looks like we’re going to have a surplus of money, so it’s important to have good people working through those issues.” Learning about acquisition isn’t just for those who want to work for the government. In D.C., where so many companies interact with the federal government, an understanding of how they buy products can never hurt.
Not Glamorous, But Marketable “Acquisitions doesn’t sound glamorous — people would rather study international development,” says Ben Patterson, 27, of College Park, Md. Even people who study international development, however, may need contract management and proposal-evaluation skills one day. “If you’re going to work for the government, there’s a good chance you’re going to be involved in procurement in some way, either overseeing contractors or evaluating proposals,” says Patterson, who was Continued on page E4