Systemic Challenges

To some ears, the testimony delivered yesterday by Comptroller General David M. Walker undoubtedly sounded like chiding.

To others it might be a clarion call.

In his appearance before the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, the head of the Government Accountability Office highlighted fundamental problems with the way the government buys billions of dollars worth of goods and services. He called them "systemic challenges."

"The U.S. federal government is the single largest buyer in the world, obligating over $400 billion in fiscal year 2006 for a wide variety of goods and services, including complex projects that often involve unproven technologies," he said in the opening paragraph of his prepared testimony.

I've been hearing that $400 billion figure for awhile now, and it still makes me shake my head. That's a lot of money.

Walker's central point is that it's often not very well spent. At a time when the country is facing "growing long-range structural deficits," federal agencies are regularly involved in dubious or high-risk contracts.

In some cases, that means officials are buying expensive things that they want, not what the government really needs. In others, agencies are promising more from their deals than their private sector partners can actually deliver. Too often these days, he said, there's not enough oversight.

"Exacerbating these challenges is the evolving and enlarging role of contractors in peforming functions previously carried out by government personnel," said an overview of his presentation.

This will be familiar stuff to a lot of folks in the government and contracting world, at least those who read the reports issued like clockwork by the Government Accountability Office and inspectors general. Some argue that the problems are overstated.

(Another witness, Stan Soloway, president of an industry group called Professional Services Council, offered some differing views, and we'll come back to his and industry's perspective on another day.)

For the uninitiated, the sweep of Walker's concern likely will come as a surprise. Some of it might even be shocking.

Walker pinpointed what he thought will be a key to improvement going forward: Better oversight by government workers. Over the last decade the procurement workforce has been been depleted. "Yet much of the acquisition workforce's workload and complexity of responsibilities have been increasing without adequate attention to the workforce's size, skills and knowledge," his presentation said.

"Sustained high-level leadership is needed to set the right tone at the top in order to address acqusition challenges and ultimately, prevent fraud, waste, and abuse."

My question today is: Who will take on that mantle?

Diane Rehm focused on contracting on her radio show yesterday. To listen in, go here.

Here's what she had to say about it:

"The Federal government is increasingly relying on private sectors contractors to get its work done. We'll talk about the risks, benefits, and some of the longer term implications of this trend."

Larry Allen, Executive Vice President Coalition for Government Procurement

Robert O'Harrow, investigative reporter, Washington Post and author of "No Place To Hide"

Daniel Guttman, Fellow, Johns Hopkins Center for Study of American Government, former special counsel to senate oversight of contracting, and co-author of The Shadow Government

By Robert O'Harrow |  July 18, 2007; 6:05 AM ET contracting warnings
Previous: Nukes, Documents and FFRDCs | Next: Beyond the Beltway


Please email us to report offensive comments.

"Who will take on that mantle?" - my guess is that you make your living on these systemic problems continue. People who are in the front lines of contracting and program management will have to take on the mantle, but thanks for your interest in federal procurement.

Posted by: Pat from DC | July 18, 2007 11:20 AM

We keep hearing from such learned figures as Mr. Walker that more government procurement resources are needed. Yet, organizations such as Treasury's FedSources, Interior's GovWorks and GSA's Assisted Acquisition Services are underemployed and/or going out of business from a lack of work. Could it be that some are more interested in building up their own empires than they are in ensuring the goods and services needed by program offices to service the American taxpayer are provided in a timely and cost-effective manner?

Posted by: Myan Urbiznis | July 19, 2007 12:14 AM

FedSources, GovWorks, and AAS are all going out of business because time and time again the fail to provide effective services. They bend rules and frequently do not represent the best value. Check the GAO and IG reports.

Posted by: Hank Moore | July 19, 2007 12:24 PM

I have taken the time to peruse the GAO and IG reports and am aware that these organizations have had their problems. I also saw where some of them have been deemed compliant in subsequent audits. I also saw where a number of in-house agency contracting organizations have their share of problems so as the saying goes: "He who lives in a glass house..." As for providing "effective services" it would be interesting to see a comparison of OMB's PART evaluation of these franchise fund organizations compared to in-house contract shops. All I've usually received from my contract shops is a bucket of "no" whereas these other providers are at least willing to look for alternative means of serving the taxpayers' needs.

Posted by: Myan Urbiznis | July 24, 2007 10:15 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company