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Pentagon procurement officer describes overhaul in contracting

Edward M. Harrington, deputy assistant secretary of procurement, oversees more than $132 billion annually in Army spending.
Edward M. Harrington, deputy assistant secretary of procurement, oversees more than $132 billion annually in Army spending. (Ricky Carioti/the Washington Post)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Edward M. Harrington deals with big bucks.

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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?

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