How will your agency check its spending?

Senators should ask President-Elect Barack Obama’s nominees for cabinet secretaries and administrators how they would manage their agencies’ contracts, according to the Government Accountability Office.

In a report released Nov. 24, GAO recommend that senators, who confirm or reject presidential nominees, ask the Defense secretary nominee about how he or she would ensure that Defense Department employees adhere to sound contracting practices.

GAO proposed asking: What steps would you take to establish and communicate your vision, goals and values to an organization as diverse and complex as DOD?

The department generally has good policies in place to govern its acquisitions, but those policies are not always reflected in the department’s actions on individual programs or acquisition decisions, GAO auditors wrote.

GAO's follow-up question is: What approach would you take to ensure that the department’s policies are consistently applied throughout DOD?

The auditing agency has been scrutinizing contract management for the past several years because acquisition has kept its place on the agency’s high-risk list. Since 2000, government spending has nearly doubled, rising to more than $450 billion in fiscal 2007. Spending that money wisely makes good acquisition policies essential, GAO auditors wrote, adding that agencies must be "buying the right things the right way."

Given that spending increase and agencies' growing reliance on contractors to perform a large part of the work, agencies have an equal responsibility to spend wisely, GAO said. The auditors also recommended that senators ask the prospective Defense secretary if he or she believes DOD has become overly dependent on contractors to support key functions or missions. If so, lawmakers must ask how the nominee would minimize the risks of that dependence, GAO said.

GAO auditors also said agencies need to improve acquisition outcomes on major systems, enter reasonable business arrangements with companies and ensure that they have the capacity to manage contractors.

“Addressing these challenges will require sustained management attention and leadership at both the agency level and from organizations such as the Office of Management and Budget and its Office of Federal Procurement Policy,” GAO report states.

The agency suggested other important questions for nominees, including:

• How would you hold contractors accountable for acquisition outcomes, particularly those large government contractors that continue to get new work no matter how bad their past outcomes were?

• What are the keys to structuring business arrangements with contractors? What are the best ways to motivate them to perform?

• Data suggests a contractor employee could cost the government 25 percent more than a federal employee. Where, if at all, have you compared in-house and contracted services and their costs?

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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