Federal contract reform a hard sell

O'Harrow writes for the Washington Post

Like every newly elected president, Sen. Barack Obama has spelled out an agenda for how his administration will use taxpayer money better.

But as he pushes reforms of the government’s $440-billion federal procurement system, he faces tremendous obstacles, say contracting specialists, lawyers and industry officials.

During the campaign, Obama and Vice President-elect Sen. Joe Biden pledged to reverse years-long trends, including pork barrel spending by Congress, government employees’ tendency to jump to government contractors and a sharp rise in no-bid contracts.


Obama also wants to make federal buying systems more efficient and said he would reduce federal spending by $40 billion by using fewer contractors.

Contracting specialists, former federal procurement officials and trade group reps said that to fulfill those promises, his administration would have to foment a huge cultural change inside the government to take procurement more seriously.

Government acquisitions programs have long been plagued by delays and cost increases, but experts say the problems have worsened in recent years as the size of the federal workforce barely increased even as the scale of spending on services, technology and other goods more than doubled.

The Clinton administration cut the number of procurement workers as part of an effort to trim red tape, and the Bush administration accelerated the trend with a philosophical commitment to outsourcing and small government.

The number of officials in five contract-related job classifications in 2000 was 57,835. By 2006, the number was 58,723, according to a report by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

An annual Government Accountability Office assessment of Defense Department weapons programs helps illustrate some of the problems.

Planned commitments on systems rose from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.6 trillion in fiscal 2007, the report found. At the same time, the amount that programs exceeded cost estimates soared from $42 billion in 2000 to $295 billion last year. Average delays of the programs examined by the GAO increased from 16 months to 21 months.

“They’re inheriting an almost broken procurement system,” said Charles Tiefer, a contracting law professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. “During the last eight years, a lot of the critical oversight machinery was undercut or neglected.”

Some specialists think the Obama administration may have to hire and train tens of thousands of new contracting workers to make up for past reductions.