Pentagon running behind on contracting database

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Defense Department officials are still deciding on when and how to fill the Total Force Management Support Office. (Photo: Shutterstock)

The Pentagon risks backsliding on the halting progress it has made toward implementing a department-wide database of contracting information, according to the Government Accountability Office. GAO noted that the Defense Department is unlikely to meet its goal of having the common contracting system fully running by fiscal 2016 if it does not staff a new office for implementing the system by next month.

DOD officials are still deciding on when and how to fill the Total Force Management Support Office (TFMS), putting them at a crossroads in their strategy for implementing the common contracting system.

Though the contracting system is relatively low-tech -- its underlying application cost less than $1 million -- it could have profound implications for DOD policy planning. Contract inventories help DOD leadership determine "the most appropriate and cost-efficient mix of military, civilian and contractor personnel to perform" its mission, the GAO report noted. Poorly itemized contracts can lead to contractors being allowed to do work that only a federal employee should -- a problem on which FCW reported in 2012.

The new TFMS office would be "much more than a help desk," said GAO Acting Director for Acquisition and Sourcing Management Timothy DiNapoli, the report's author; it would take on the day-to-day work of transitioning to a common contracting system.

The Army's Contractor Manpower Reporting Application (CMRA) would underpin a common contracting system, but it is unclear if Army experts will be transferred to the new management office by next month, as DOD officials had hoped. If they are not, the office would not be directly employing the expertise of the service branch that is furthest along on the project.

"DOD has made incremental progress each time we report on [the common contracting system] but there is still more that needs to be done," DiNapoli said in an interview. "Part of the frustration [DOD] and Congress have had is that each time they try to move it forward, there always seem to be another roadblock."

Federal law requires the Defense secretary to set up a data collection system for the department and submit an annual inventory of DOD's contracting activities. That inventory is to include the functions performed by a contractor, the DOD entity administering the contract, the agency funding the contract and the number of contractor employees used for direct labor in the project.

The military branches and other parts of DOD have gradually refined their contract reporting practices. The Army developed the CMRA -- which captures data on labor-hour expenditures by function, funding source and mission -- and the Air Force and Navy later implemented the system. A broad category termed "other DOD components" was the last of four DOD entities to implement the system in September 2013. While the military departments have "help desks" for their CMRAs, other DOD components' help desks are not available because of "funding lapses," the GAO report said.

For fiscal 2012, the most recent available inventory, 32 different DOD components submitted data, collectively reporting about 670,000 contractor FTEs (full-time equivalent contractors), providing obligated services of about $129 billion, the report said.

The Army relied on the CMRA to compile its inventory, but other military departments and DOD components used another database -- the Federal Procurement Data System-Next Generation, which does not include data on contractor FTEs.

Those agencies could choose from five possible methods offered by DOD for estimating FTEs in fiscal 2012. But those different reporting methods risk breeding misinformation through inconsistent reporting on the number of contractor FTEs performing services on behalf of the department, according to GAO.

"DOD officials cautioned against comparing inventory data across fiscal years given the differences in the estimating formulas and other factors," the report said.

The GAO report raised questions about the direction of the contracting system that only certain DOD officials can answer. Program specialists were unavailable to comment, but DOD spokesperson Nathan Christensen said "we are confident that existing Army expertise and corporate knowledge will be leveraged to meet the staffing requirements of the newly formed office."

In a written response to a draft of the report, Rich Robbins, director of DOD's Total Force Planning and Requirements, said the department agrees with GAO's assessment that, despite progress, "significant challenges persistent" in the program. He added that DOD's long-term plans for using contract inventory data for workforce planning rest on staffing an office on the subject as soon as possible.

About the Author

Sean Lyngaas is an FCW staff writer covering defense, cybersecurity and intelligence issues. Prior to joining FCW, he was a reporter and editor at Smart Grid Today, where he covered everything from cyber vulnerabilities in the U.S. electric grid to the national energy policies of Britain and Mexico. His reporting on a range of global issues has appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Economist, The Washington Diplomat and The Washington Post.

Lyngaas is an active member of the National Press Club, where he served as chairman of the Young Members Committee. He earned his M.A. in international affairs from The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, and his B.A. in public policy from Duke University.

Click here for previous articles by Lyngaas, or connect with him on Twitter: @snlyngaas.

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