Aug 02, 2012
Have the Pentagon, State Department, and USAID
Learned From Their Mistakes
in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Dudley Moore: Do you feel you’ve learnt by your mistakes here?
Peter Cook (as Sir Arthur Streeb-Greebling): I think I have, yes, and I think I can probably repeat them almost perfectly.
~British comedians Dudley Moore and Peter Cook, from “The Frog and Peach” sketch (1966)
It’s been almost a year since the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan issued its final report to Congress on the state of U.S. reconstruction efforts in those two countries. In addition to its blockbuster finding that between $31 billion and $60 billion was lost to waste and fraud, the final report, along with two earlier reports, made numerous recommendations on ways to improve contingency contracting.
Some recommendations pertained specifically to the three principal contracting agencies – the Departments of Defense (DoD) and State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) –- and others were addressed to the executive departments in general. (A few months ago, the Project On Government Oversight blogged about the efforts of Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jim Webb (D-Va.) to implement some of the wartime contracting commission's recommendations to Congress.
This week, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released an assessment of the extent to which the Defense and State departments, and USAID have acted on the commission's recommendations. The GAO found that DoD has taken or planned actions that directly align with about half of the contracting commission's recommendations applicable to it, while State and USAID have done so with regard to about one-third of the recommendations applicable to them. Of the remaining recommendations, the agencies took no action either because they claim existing policies or practices already address them or they just don’t agree with them.
For example, as the commission recommended, DoD now withholds a percentage of payments on certain contracts when a contractor’s business systems contain significant deficiencies, State issued guidance on drafting written rationales for pursuing or not pursuing suspension or debarment actions, and USAID now requires a sustainability analysis to be conducted for all projects (i.e., determining if the host nation will be able to sustain U.S.-funded projects after we leave). However, DoD, State, and USAID have not implemented the commission's recommendation to elevate the positions and expand the authority of officials responsible for contingency contracting, explaining that their existing organizational structures are sufficient. All three agencies also seem to be giving the cold shoulder to the commission's recommendations for boosting competitive contracting practices.
The GAO summarizes the actions that the three agencies took (or didn’t take) with regard to each recommendation. It is up to the reader to determine the appropriateness or sufficiency of those actions and inactions and whether DoD, State, and USAID are in a good position to avoid repeating their mistakes in future contingency operations. Just looking at the relatively low number of recommendations acted upon gives one the uneasy feeling that all three agencies, but especially State and USAID, are ignoring the advice of the Commission on Wartime Contracting at their own peril.
This is particularly troubling given the expanded role State and USAID now have in Iraq – which will soon lose one crucial layer of external oversight, the congressionally appointed watchdog Office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) – and the fact that the commission's final report anticipated the tremendous challenges State and USAID will face in managing and overseeing their contractor workforce in Iraq and Afghanistan:
Without adequate staffing and training, significant waste and possible failures can be expected as State faces the daunting task of the transition in Iraq and future transition in Afghanistan. USAID also faces uncertainty if it is once again tasked with accomplishing its development mission in a war zone. Without a focus on contingency contracting in both State and USAID, skill sets, tradecraft, and knowledge gleaned from lessons learned will be soon forgotten and the benefit of any staffing gains will be lost.
More than $8.5 billion has been obligated so far in the current fiscal year for Iraq and Afghanistan reconstruction contracts. Between fiscal years 2002 and 2011, DoD, State, and USAID reported combined obligations of approximately $159 billion. According to the commission, anywhere from 20 to 38 percent of that amount was lost to waste and fraud. Let’s hope mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t repeated “almost perfectly.”
Neil Gordon is an investigator at the Project On Government Oversight.