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Pentagon procurement officer describes overhaul in contracting

By Dana Hedgpeth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010; B03

Edward M. Harrington deals with big bucks.

More than $132 billion annually, in fact. As the Pentagon's deputy assistant secretary for procurement, he helps oversee how the Army spends every dollar, buying a range of items and services: from complex computer software to run electronics programs, to setting dining tents for soldiers in deserts, to buying armored tanks, ammunition and weapons from contractors.

The government's contracting out for services is nothing new, as Harrington's office notes. Its "Contractors on the Battlefield" chart outlines the number of contractors compared with the number of soldiers since the American Revolution. Back then, the ratio of contractors to soldiers was 1:6. World War I, 1:20. Vietnam, 1:6. Gulf War, 1:60. Iraq, 1:1. Afghanistan, 2:1.

These days, Harrington points out, the job is tougher because the government's workforce to write, manage and oversee the contractors has shrunk dramatically. The office estimates that as the workload has increased 1,000 percent since 1987, the government's contracting workforce has decreased by 25 percent.

Harrington, in excerpts from an interview, discusses his responsibility of helping to execute the Obama administration's strategy of overhauling how the federal government handles contracting.

You oversee a big chunk of change. What's the hardest thing about that?

The biggest challenge we have is restoring the contracting workforce. Building both the numbers of the workforce back as well as advancing their skills. As the contracting dollars have gone up, the government's contracting workforce has gone down. That left us with a relatively minimal staff of senior contracting experts.

Where have they gone?

We've offered them buyouts and they took them.

Give an example of how the workforce has been cut.

In my own office, we had 142 personnel -- 11 of them were the most experienced contracting experts in the Army. Of those 11, each had about 25 to 35 years of experience. They were very expert at interpreting the needs, developing policy and overseeing contracts. Right now, we've been able to bring one of those individuals back.

Why is having mid- and senior-level people such a big deal?

Contracting is a practice, a profession. It is similar to law or engineering, where you develop your expertise and skills over a number of years. . . . It takes time to get the training as well as to get the experience with all of the various contracting regulations. Those mid- and senior-level individuals are essential to coaching, counseling and mentoring our entry-level people coming onboard.

Has contracting become more complex, or is it that you've lost the personnel to do what you need to do?

It is a combination of both. It has become more complex because we have rules, regulations and policies that have emerged over time -- all focused on getting . . . the better business arrangement with our contractors -- while at the same time, we've had 15 years of downsizing, and now we're trying to rebuild those numbers.

What are you doing to improve how contracting is done in Iraq and Afghanistan?

We have had more in-depth assessment of where we need contracting representatives. We are now training them in the United States and then providing them in theater. Previously, it would take us three to four days to transfer from one contracting officer representative leaving the country and transferring back to the United States. Now it takes two hours to get that person prepped.

Are waste, fraud and abuse as widespread as some observers think?

No, I don't think so. We do regular ethics training with our contracting workforce. We focus on procurement integrity and ensuring that we have no undue influence on the process or the people in the process. Are we absolutely perfect? No. It is a matter of daily oversight on our part.

President Obama has also pushed for doing more insourcing of some of the jobs that are now contracted out to companies. What are you doing on that front?

We have a five-year plan to insource a lot of our contracting manpower. We'll add about 4,100 people to our acquisition workforce.

What kinds of jobs will that include?

It will be from engineers, to testers, to cost analyzers, to quality assurance personnel -- many of whom are currently contractors.

Where are you in that five-year plan?

For this fiscal year, we were supposed to insource 1,414 positions. Of those, we have done 454. We've also hired 500 contracting interns who spend two years in a training program and come out as a contracting officer.

Is it easier to find people in this down economy?

We have many more applications than positions. In one case, we've had 3,000 applicants for 50 contracting positions. . . . We've had people who are interested in coming to us from the auto industry, and they're a good fit because they have experience as purchasing agents.

Is that a reflection of the economy?

Yes, I think so, and the opportunity that presents itself in this career field. There's tremendous opportunity to grow. We have a career path, and it is a good, steady job.

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