Battlefield rotations could be bad for contract management

As defense officials have tried to get a grasp on its mismanaged contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan through the years, one factor that has emerged is the rotation of federal and contractor personnel into and out of the war zone.

Uniformed personnel, federal civilian employees and even contractors are coming and going to the war zone frequently. The new arrivals have to get acquainted with the all-new issues they’re dealing with, which they may not have faced in the past, Moshe Schwartz, specialist in defense acquisition at the Congressional Research Service, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Sept. 12.

“Often someone who gets to theater has never engaged in a counterinsurgency, and it takes them a learning curve” to get up to speed, he said.

Contracting in wartime is fundamentally different from contracting in peacetime. In peacetime, a contracting officer considers cost, schedule and performance as the primary factors in choosing the best vendor. In the war zone, the officer has different concerns. Threats are greater and different. Contract officials have to keep closer tabs on materials, so that the government is getting all that it has paid for. They also have to think about the impact the contract’s work would have on the local population.

By the time the employees and personnel finally begin to understand operations and what’s happening, they’re just months from heading home.

“That definitely has an impact on continuity and common-sense issues,” he added.

The rotation cycle hits data management as well, Schwartz said. Some incoming workers aren’t familiar with the data systems in use. The outgoing wokers sometimes fail to connect with their incoming counterparts to pass along important information about the system and about collecting data.

“Sometimes, the person collecting the data has the book on the shelf, and the next person didn’t know it was there,” he said.

In light of the mismanagement and other contracting problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, Defense Department officials have worked to develop a cadre of acquisition employees who know contracting in both peacetime and wartime.

In 2009, the department established the Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office as an on-call group to coordinate and even integrate aspects of operational contract support. Further, the Defense Acquisition University has seven contingency-related training courses, primarily geared toward the acquisition profession, Alan Estevez, assistant secretary of defense for logistics and materiel readiness, told the committee.

DOD has made numerous other organizational changes to get a hold of its mismanagement problems. Estevez said the department realizes that operational contracting support and DOD’s reliance on contractors, which makes them a vital ingredient in contingency operations, won’t go away.

“We have worked hard to improve our oversight and management of this very critical area and have no intention of losing focus,” Estevez said.

About the Author

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

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