Government Short of Contracting Officers

The 418-foot National Security Cutter is the Coast Guard's biggest ship ever.
The 418-foot National Security Cutter is the Coast Guard's biggest ship ever. (Northrop Grumman)
By Renae Merle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 5, 2007

For a year, the workload just kept growing, to the point it became nearly impossible.

Cathy Martindale, a government contracting officer, darted between meetings about three Coast Guard ship programs, negotiating prices for proposed changes and monitoring contractors' compliance with their deals.

Martindale's job was to track the projects at the heart of the Coast Guard's $24 billion modernization project, known as Deepwater. She attended meetings about design and engineering changes for the ships -- one of which, at 418 feet, is the largest the Coast Guard has ever built. When a dispute emerged about contract terms, Martindale mediated, interpreting the terms and ensuring that companies complied.

"So I am there, always on my toes, trying to pay attention to make sure the path they are heading down is consistent with the contract," Martindale said.

But the job required 12- to 14-hour workdays. She traveled 15 days a month. And when she found that she needed to be two places at once, she decided it was time to plead for help. "I realized there's not going to be light around the corner," she said. "I could work 24/7 and would not catch up."

Martindale, 43, is among a group of procurement officers struggling to keep pace with increasing demands to oversee billions of dollars in spending by the Pentagon and civilian agencies. Although she and her colleagues play pivotal roles in the government's operation, their plight has received little attention even as the government continues to expand its reliance on private companies and embarks on increasingly complicated programs .

The Defense Department's civilian acquisition workforce has shrunk by about 40 percent since the early 1990s and now has about 270,000 employees, according to Pentagon statistics and Government Accountability Office reports. Yet defense spending on service contracts increased 78 percent, to $151 billion, from 1996 to 2006, the reports said.

There are 7.5 million federal contractors, 1.5 million more than in 2002, without a corresponding increase in government officials to oversee them, said Paul C. Light, a public service professor at New York University.

"The acquisition workforce couldn't be in any more distress right now, and I know they are frustrated that they can't oversee the contracts that they have," Light said. "They are looking at the hunks of money flowing out but don't have the bodies to keep up."

The shortfall, which the government has relied largely on private contractors to fill, has contributed to cost overruns and delays, according to government reports and audits.

In the midst of the decline, the Army launched a modernization project but had "insufficient resources to staff, manage, and synchronize" the program, which includes a complex system for networking soldiers with each other, planes and tanks, the GAO found recently. The Army hired Boeing to manage the project, which has nearly doubled in cost to $163 billion.

This year, after a ship being built by Lockheed Martin went more than 50 percent over budget, the Navy acknowledged that it hadn't provided enough oversight and pledged to more than double the number of technical experts at the shipyard where the work is being done.

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