Friday, September 23, 2011

Your Taxpayer Dollar$ at Work: Volume III – Muffin Edition

This week's news of the absurdity of waste, fraud, and abuse across government comes from the Department of Justice (DOJ) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) Audit Division. Their report, titled Audit of Department of Justice Conference Planning and Food and Beverage Costs is a follow-up to a previous September 2007 which examined expenditures for 10 major DOJ conferences held between October 2004 and September 2006. That audit found that DOJ had few internal controls to limit the expense of conference planning and food and beverage costs at DOJ conferences. This report highlights the same story, and little to no corrective actions by DOJ to mitigate this waste. Makes you think fondly of the $50 hammers and $500 toilet seats of Defense back in the 80s, doesn't it?

Of course politicians and the media jumped on the story for easy press, zeroing in on the $16 muffins and nearly $10 cookies served to attendees at one event. Emily Ingram of the Washington Post created a good competitive landscape of the muffin offerings in Washington, and only at government conferences will those prices apply. What is even worse is that DOJ officials basically stated they thought they were addressing the issue:

...Justice officials did not dispute most of the findings. The department did not offer an official to speak by name, but a spokeswoman who was not authorized to comment publicly said the agency “agrees that excessive spending of the types identified in the report should not occur” and has taken steps to prevent it. She said conference costs have been cut this year as part of an effort to curtail non­essential spending, though she could not specify an amount. 
Justice Department officials gave auditors a variety of explanations for the expenses, saying consultants they hired to help plan events had valuable knowledge and that the department had done its best to control costs. Officials from one Justice office said they thought they were saving money by serving muffins and other snacks instead of full meals...
You're not saving money DOJ, you're wasting it needlessly.

The OIG recommendations are pretty straight forward: itemize costs and ensure you have adequate price analysis to ensure "best value." These controls need to go much further by commoditizing these expenditures, of course itemizing all costs (both direct and indirect), and ensure no surprises and real best-value. There are many other quality, yet reasonable, venues that can accommodate these functions other than the Ritz Carlton.

Adequate market research must be conducted, lessons learned applied, and opportunities for strategic sourcing and leveraging the buying power of the government must be utilized. Further, perhaps this is an opportunity to consolidate BPAs across government and further leverage buying power, in addition to possible using reverse auctions to drive down prices. Cost savings of these types of expenditures are really low-hanging fruit, akin to eliminating free coffee or soda in the break room, which makes this report even more shocking at the level of waste rampant in government.

We obviously have a long way to go in reducing spending, although a thorough spend analysis of these commodity-type of expenditures could probably find millions, if not billions, in needless waste and efficiencies. The opportunities to save money are everywhere. Just look in the snack basket apparently.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

How Do You Stop A Contracting Disaster?

In light of the new inherently governmental rules that have been published by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, decision making by the government in regard to acquisition strategy comes to mind. When it comes to hiring contractors to assist in performing acquisition functions, it is very much a caveat emptor situation.

Contracting is a difficult subject, that requires expertise. There are many IT and Program Management firms that continue to receive contracts to provide acquisition support, although they do not have the competency or the skill set to provide it. They just happen to be there providing other support services, are an 8(a) so you can sole-source a contract, or see these opportunities because of the desperate need by government. So why not assist with procurements? It is just paper-pushing anyway, with little value-added service, right? Hardly.

What is happening is that IT Program Managers with a few DAU classes under their belts are making incompetent recommendations related to contract type, acquisition strategy, and requirements. Because the federal IT clients do not understand contracting, and the acquisition shops are overloaded and not providing sound business advice, the government relies on poor advice in its decision making.

Contracts worth millions, sometimes hundreds of millions, are being made in this dysfunctional environment. The government continues to bleed, and incompetent contractors continue to be paid. The inherently governmental rules allow contractors to provide guidance and advice, but little vetting of competency and skill set seems to be happening due to pressures of desperately needing support, and the need to increase contract throughput. These services, when done right, can be very critical to supporting this crucial government management mission. I am not advocating they go away, but in looking at inherently governmental functions, the government really needs to be careful what it is getting and why.

How can we honestly discuss acquisition reform when this environment exists?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

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.