Sisti: Maintaining some perspective

A great, Brooklyn-born comedian used to lament that his parents were so over-protective that his father would scream things at him such as, "Don't touch that hammer! You'll get cancer!" It was that complete disproportion to reality that made his jokes so funny. Clearly, his parents lacked perspective.

Nothing is funny, however, about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or the contracting process issues associated with it. Still, temptation exists to surrender to disproportionate responses, notably calls for the repeal of the hard-fought procurement reforms of the past decade, which also show a lack of perspective.

Beyond the convoluted contracting process involved, the events at Abu Ghraib were depraved. Some hint that, if not for procurement reform, contractors would have been reined in, and the system would have identified and prevented the abusive and anticompetitive task orders issued against multiple-award contracts.

Perhaps this is true, but there is an equal chance that the outcome would have been the same. What happened at Abu Ghraib is as much a management scandal as it is a procurement scandal.

Defense Department officials used a blanket purchase agreement issued against schedules by way of two agencies — a process that the architects of procurement reform had never considered. However, it was not reformed procurement laws that led to to the decision to contract for out-of-scope services or to the failure to monitor the performance of those services. Indeed, by filing justification, DOD officials could have procured the same services sole-source under the urgent and compelling exception to the pre-existing Competition in Contracting Act. The scandal could have played out no differently.

Certainly we cannot defend the indefensible; nor can we treat procurement law as immutable as the Ten Commandments. Serious concerns regarding contract scope and administration — as well as the use of Rube Goldberg-like methodologies in place of competition — exist and cry out for redress.

In addressing those concerns, we must be mindful of the government's needs and challenges and weigh them against the significant benefits achieved as a result of procurement reform. For instance, by fiscal 2006, 53 percent of federal program managers will be eligible to retire, raising the specter of resource constriction and loss of institutional memory.

In the years since the start of procurement reform, the average number of days from solicitation to award has dropped. In 1995, the process took 278 days and dropped to 111 in 2003, yielding significant savings in cost and labor. It would be the epitome of throwing the baby out with the bath water to address the systemic problems identified at Abu Ghraib


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