A COR! A COR! My Afghan Kingdom for a COR!

On March 29 the Government Accountability Office released a report on the state of military contracting oversight in Afghanistan.

Before turning to what GAO found let's consider that improving the state of contracting is a seemingly eternal goal of the U.S. government. Private military and security contractors (PMSC) take a lot of criticism for cost overruns and various kinds of fraud, waste and abuse but let's remember that it takes two to tango. If government contracting officers aren't themselves qualified and experienced good contracts aren't going to be written or won't be properly managed.

To that end, every task force, agency and department which has ever studied this, from the 2007 Gansler Commission to the 2011 Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, has called for improving the status of its acquisition workforce. In fact, the Commission pointedly noted that poor planning and oversight by the government and poor performance by contractors had resulted in wasted resources, missions not being achieved, and the loss of lives.

But the most recent GAO report shows that the Department of Defense still has a way to go.
The report Management And Oversight Improvements Needed In Afghanistan found that the Pentagon has taken steps to enhance its existing training program for contracting officer's representatives (CORs). But "the required training does not fully prepare them to perform their contract oversight duties in contingency areas such as Afghanistan." For example, GAO found that:

CORs are not prepared to oversee contracts because the required training does not include specifics on how to complete written statements of work and how to operate in Afghanistan's unique contracting environment. For example, DOD contracting personnel told GAO about opening delays and additional expenses related to the construction of a dining facility, which was originally constructed without a kitchen because it was not included in the original statement of work. In some cases, contract-specific training was not provided at all. In addition, not all oversight personnel such as commanders and senior leaders receive training to perform contract oversight and management duties in Afghanistan because such training is not required of them. Because DOD's required training does not prepare CORs and other oversight personnel to oversee contracts, units cannot be assured that they receive what they paid for.

This is not just a matter of improperly drafting a contract. The lack of knowledge by CORs means troops can be endangered.

CORs do not always have the necessary subject area-related technical expertise to oversee U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) contracts they were assigned to. Contracting officials noted, for example, that the staircases on guard towers at a forward operating base were poorly constructed and unsafe to climb. The COR assigned to that contract had inadequate subject area-related technical expertise, preventing the early identification of the defective welding on the staircases. According to contracting officials, situations like this often occurred due to the shortage of CORs with expertise in construction.

Evidently, a longstanding problem, GAO reported in July 2004 that DOD did not always have sufficient contract oversight personnel to manage and oversee its logistics support contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan -- lack of a sufficient number of CORs, is still a problem. The report stated:

DOD does not have a sufficient number of CORs to oversee the numerous contracts in Afghanistan. CENTCOM requires CORs to be nominated for all service contracts over $2,500 that, unless exempted, require significant ongoing technical advice and surveillance from requirements personnel. However, there is no guidance on the number of contracts a single COR should oversee. According to contracting officials and CORs GAO interviewed in Afghanistan, some CORs were responsible for providing oversight to multiple contracts in addition to carrying out their primary military duty. For example, one COR GAO interviewed was assigned to more than a dozen construction projects. According to that COR, it was impossible to be at each construction site during key phases of the project because the projects were occurring almost simultaneously at different locations. Consequently, according to officials, in situations like these, construction was completed without sufficient government oversight and problems were sometimes identified after facilities had been completed.

Considering that in fiscal year 2011, DOD reported obligating over $16 billion for contracts and completed over 35,000 contracting actions on over 24,600 contracts and orders that were executed primarily in Afghanistan you can see why this is a problem.

Some other illustrative problem contracts GAO mentioned included:

-- According to officials, a COR prepared a statement of work for a contract to build floors and install tents but failed to include any power requirements necessary to run air conditioners, heaters, and lights because the COR and unit personnel did not have the electrical technical expertise to properly and safely specify the correct power converter package with the original request. Thus, the tents were unusable until the unit used a field ordering officer to order, at an additional cost, the correct power converters so that the tents were usable and completed in a timely fashion.

-- A senior engineer inspector official told us the cement block walls that had been accepted by a COR were poorly constructed. The COR did not have the subject area-related technical expertise or access to subject matter experts necessary to properly inspect and reject substandard cement block walls. For example, the contracting official noted large holes in a cement block wall that remained after the wood scaffolding was removed, which rendered the wall unstable.

-- A dining facility expected to service 1,000 military personnel was unused for a year due to emergent construction deficiencies such as electrical and plumbing issues. Contracting officials attributed the construction issues to the shortage of oversight personnel with subject area-related technical expertise or access to subject matter experts in construction. As a result, according to contracting personnel, repair work to correct the deficiencies was acquired under LOGCAP for $190,000 in addition to the original cost of the contract.

Ah well, at least no soldiers were electrocuted due to faulty wiring, as happened in Iraq. I guess that's progress.

In another instance, an entire compound of five buildings was built in the wrong location. According to DOD, based on the statement of work, the compound should have been constructed on base behind the security walls but instead was constructed outside the perimeter of the base in a non-secure location. Contracting officials we spoke with in Afghanistan attributed the problem to the numerous contracts managed by the COR and the lack of time to perform contract oversight duties. As a result, according to officials, the buildings could not be used. The cost of the compound including the five buildings was $2.4 million.

GAO's conclusion was that "CORs are still not fully prepared to oversee the multitude of contracts for which they are assigned, potentially resulting in a significant waste of taxpayer dollars and an increased risk to the success of operations."

Given DOD`s heavy reliance on contractors during operations in Afghanistan and given the unpredictability of potential future contingencies, it is critical that DOD address these challenges as soon as possible to mitigate the risk to the success of operations, to obtain reasonable assurance that contractors are meeting their contract requirements and that troops are getting what they need to support contingency operations, and to help ensure that tax dollars are not being wasted.