Contingency Contracting Failures: It’s About the People

The big story before the Labor Day holiday was the release of the final report by the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan (CWC). According to the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), the enormous dollar volume of waste and the assumption of the over-reliance on contractors for contingency operations was the focus of the report. I very much respect POGO’s work, but I respectfully disagree.

The major issue is the quality of the acquisition workforce. In agreement was Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO), who stated that two areas in the report that jumped out to her was the Defense Department culture and the lack of qualified and too few contracting professionals as main reasons for the waste. Although I normally focus on quality, it was the quantity on this issue that was also a major failure.
“I think the dirty little secret that has now been exposed-in fact this goes governmentwide and not just in wartime contracting-is that if you don’t have the personnel that work for the federal government, rather than increase the personnel and the costs associated with that, go out and contract,” she said. “This has occurred to a large extent in the Department of Homeland Security, it’s occurred in a number of places and we have been doing that while we have hollowed out our acquisition personnel. We need to make investment in government employees that know how to police this and we frankly have dropped the ball in that regard.”
What the report simply fails to address is the political realities made with these decisions. Hearts and minds needed to be won, and thus materialized the pictures in Iraq of U.S. personnel sitting a top pallets of U.S. currency, handing it out like candy to win favor in line with local cultural norms. In Afghanistan, bounties were paid to find “terrorists,”so locals sold their neighbors up the river to win favor with the U.S., make more money than they ever have before, and take over land and settle old scores. Warlords also were paid off, although sympathies to al Qaeda and Taliban forces continue to be difficult to determine. How much waste went to the enemy? Perhaps that is the $30 Billion that the report mentions in possible unaccounted for waste. Any oversight with these issues?
The realities for personnel are that contingency contracting may be one of the most difficult areas of contract management, as local customs and norms may interfere with transparency and oversight, making the glaring lack of adequate training even more difficult to comprehend. Further, how many people across Defense, State, and USAID have any formal training? Obviously not enough. It got so bad that Defense was actually considering giving every lowly grunt going into theatre some form of contract training!
Coordination and collaboration across these agencies means creating a Contingency Contracting Corps, shared among the agencies, that can perform the contingency contracting mission across the globe. They would be the “special forces” of contracting; the tip of the spear to ensure accountability to the taxpayer. This of course requires a massive overhaul in the training curriculum available to the acquisition workforce, which of course needs to include revamping services contracting and commercial item acquisition. A much broader skill set would also need to be considered, one that needs to be factored in for hiring or designation to this mission.
After 10 years of war, and the 15 strategic recommendations made by the Commission, I hope that Congress understands the issues at stake. We need to invest in the acquisition workforce, and fully fund these initiatives that can have vast returns with upfront investments. I would like to think that government management of this scale would easily be an election year issue, but perhaps it will not make effective sound bites.

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