Feds scramble to improve emergency procurement information

But efforts to avoid a replay of 2005 disasters are not complete

The federal government has taken steps to make emergency contracting information easier to find in an effort to avoid a repeat of the insufficient response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, as the 2006 hurricane season opens, many more planned steps remain untaken.

The Office of Management and Budget’s Office of Federal Procurement Policy is working with a working group of the Chief Acquisition Officers Council to assemble an online directory of emergency procurement regulations. It would list current interagency contracts and contracts prepared in advance of a disaster for commodities and services used most frequently during relief operations.

Listing such contracts lets agencies avoid the time-consuming procurement process of holding competitions and reviewing bids and proposals. Instead, they can issue a task order on an existing interagency contract to save time and effort, OFPP acting administrator Robert Burton said.

The directory would also include contact information for officials who have expertise and experience in conducting emergency procurements.

The directory is not online yet. Burton said it should be ready near the end of June. OFPP is also trying to improve training for situations, such as the 2005 hurricane relief operations, in which the government suspends some normal contracting procedures to quickly deliver goods and services, Burton said.

“The challenges of [Hurricane] Katrina were in the management area” rather than the procurement process, he said. To partly address that, OFPP has asked the Federal Acquisition Regulation Panel to create a new part in the FAR that would cover emergency procurements.

FAR Part 18 would be a compilation of emergency procurement rules that supersede regular contracting regulations. Rather than make new rules, the new FAR part would collect existing ones scattered throughout the regulation and coalesce them in one place, Burton said.

Without such a section, “you’ll be hunting and pecking for this stuff for hours,” Burton said. But that effort, too, is incomplete. OFPP offers an outdated pamphlet on its Web site that it needs to update, he said.

OFPP is working on creating a curriculum to certify contracting officers as fully trained in handling emergency procurements, he said. Officials recognize the need for more procurement professionals to handle large acquisitions in a short time frame.

Catherine Poole, a principal at Acquisition Solutions, said one of the many problems that hampered the post-Katrina efforts was the small number of available contracting officers, especially compared with oversight officials. Poole is in charge of the firm’s subscription service that gives agencies guidance on acquisition rules.

Poole said there were three to four times as many employees doing oversight of contracts than people writing and negotiating contracts and meeting needs at hand. She recommended shifting greater amounts of resources to contracting officers.

House committee contemplates reforms
Lawmakers have charged that agencies squandered billions of tax dollars cleaning up the tons of debris left in the wake of Katrina while allowing the affected area to become a breeding ground for fraud and abuse.

“Today’s hearing should make our blood boil. And it should shame us,” Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, said in his opening statement during a May 4 hearing on contract practices following Katrina.

Waxman spread blame widely, accusing the Army Corps of Engineers, prime contractors, the Bush administration and even Congress for the failures. At the hearing, the committee reviewed agencies’ roles in contracting for goods and services. It also looked at how well the agencies prepared for and responded to the Katrina disaster.

As a result of the storm’s aftermath, government entities have sought to improve their reactions to such situations. Experts have urged agencies to craft preparedness plans. They also have recommended that agencies train employees so they know what to do when another storm or disaster hits the United States.

The Government Accountability Office, in investigating the 2005 response, found that the government did not have enough employees at the scene to oversee contractors effectively. GAO added that officials failed to adequately plan and prepare, and they did not clearly delineate responsibilities and expectations across agencies for the contracted jobs.

“They were overwhelmed,” said William Woods, director of acquisition and sourcing management at GAO, referring to agencies’ handling of Katrina-related contracts. GAO released its report May 4, the day of the hearing.

Despite the urging of committee chairman Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), Woods would not give the agencies a failing grade for their work, settling instead for calling the efforts incomplete.

In the May 4 report, GAO issued no new recommendations. Instead, it cited past recommendations that the agencies did not implement. In past reports, GAO said agencies should invest in trained employees who have clear responsibilities and guidance for overseeing contractor performance.

It also found a lack of planning for contracting in major contingency situations, such as the aftermath of Katrina.

Knowledge needed for rapid response
“During times of relative calm, such procurement inefficiencies can be ignored as bureaucratic inertia,” Neal Fox, an independent consultant and former procurement official at the General Services Administration, told the committee. “However, during times of crisis and recovery, procurement inefficiencies can mean the difference between lives saved and lives lost.”

Fox is a member of the board of advisors at FedBid, an online procurement services company. The company hosts what Fox referred to as a reverse eBay auction that allows sellers to underbid one another to win contracts.

In testimony, Woods said agencies must have sound acquisition plans to make good business decisions and a capable workforce to monitor contractors and ensure good value for taxpayer money.

“These components are critical to successfully managing contracts in any environment,” Woods said.

Poole led an effort last year at Acquisition Solutions to analyze and report on rapidly changing emergency contracting authorities created as a result of Katrina. She wrote an advisory for contractors, issued updates to it and developed content for an emergency contracting Web site hosted by her company. Agencies swarmed to the site as procurements piled up and regulations changed several times. The central locale gave timely information on emergency acquisition procedures. Poole said the government should continue to work toward building a one-stop resource for agencies.

“They are thirsty for knowledge and guidance that they can essentially take and run with,” she said.

Acquisition Solution eventually discontinued that part of its Web site, but the information remained available to subscribers.

The importance of prepositioningThe White House issued a report in February that included a list of recommendations for improving the federal government’s response in the event of another catastrophic hurricane.

The White House report, “The Federal Response to Hurricane Katrina: Lessons Learned,” made the following contracting recommendations to the Homeland Security Department:

  • Set standards for prepositioning federal assets in states and local communities. DHS should mandate the use of pre-competed contracts.

  • Identify private-sector resources that can supplement federal support for disaster operations, execute contingency contracts with those resources before disasters occur, and encourage state and local governments to do the same.

  • Improve access to and awareness of private-sector and nongovernmental resources available during emergencies.

  • Improve planning and coordination with state and local partners, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector. DHS should ensure that its logistics system takes advantage of state and local governments’ capabilities and all other reliable and credible resources.

  • Establish an integrated public alert and warning system in coordination with all relevant departments and agencies. Federal, state and local governments must have the means to communicate essential and accurate emergency information to the public before, during and after a catastrophe.

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