Carter: DoD needs acquisition ‘fast lane’

Ashton Carter, the Defense Department\'s undersecretary for acquisitions, said the Pentagon can buy things quickly when it truly needs to. But when it comes to ...

By Jared Serbu
DoD Reporter
Federal News Radio

A failure to reform and streamline the Pentagon’s processes to acquire goods and services in Iraq, Afghanistan and other future combat zones would amount to “theft” from both warfighters and taxpayers, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief said Monday.

To handle future contracts in overseas contingency operations, DoD will need a permanent “fast lane” that balances rapid support to deployed troops with the quest for better value the department is trying to extract from all of its contracts, said Ashton Carter, undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, logistics and technology.

“Our system doesn’t make that easy,” Carter testified Monday before the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our system was designed to prepare for war, not to wage war. It’s an annual cycle, and if we followed that we’d always be behind the eight ball in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have to create a fast lane for contingency acquisition so that requirements are done not in the ponderous, usual way, but quickly.”

Carter said Congress would need to develop similar fast lanes in committees that have to authorize the reprogramming of Pentagon spending to meet urgent priorities as well. He said that although DoD had had recent successes in rapidly fielding urgent capabilities such as Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, the contingency contracting process had been far from streamlined.

“We’re constantly hotwiring and working around things,” Carter said. “That is not satisfactory. We need a better system, and the Secretary has asked me to put on a more permanent footing the constellation of ad-hoc systems that we’ve been using, and I’m doing that.”

The wartime contracting panel is currently focusing on service contracting in contingency operations. An interim report to Congress that it released a month ago contains 32 recommendations, most of which fall under Carter’s jurisdiction. He told commission members that he agrees with most of the suggestions, and is already implementing many of them.

There are areas of disagreement, however, including the commission recommendation that DoD make much more use of suspension and debarments to crack down on waste and fraud in contracting, and another that would require DoD to only consider a contractor’s past performance if it is formally documented in the government’s central database.

Carter said he agrees DoD doesn’t have good enough data on past performance in many cases, but that the department should be able to consult many data sources when evaluating how a vendor has conducted its work in the past.

“A difficulty arises when a contractor has no past performance as a DoD contractor,” he said. “How do we handle that situation? I think it’s important that we not do anything that erects a barrier to entry for a contractor who has not contracted with the government before. Related to that is the fact that there are contractors that have done the kind of work for governments that we want them to do, but it’s been for non-U.S. governments. They also won’t be in the database, but their past performance can be assessed, and it’s relevant.”

And when it comes to recommending that suspensions and debarments be used as a bigger hammer, Carter said the commission needs to proceed with caution.

“When we get to the point of considering suspension and debarment, that’s way past the point where I want to be with these things,” he said. “We need to focus on the front end, the prevention and detection of fraud. We need to get better at those. You prevent fraud by making it impossible to pull one over on you, because you’re all over contract performance. You’re doing what a contract monitor ought to do.”

To monitor overseas contracts more closely, Carter said DoD is steadily beefing up its acquisition and contract management workforce. In particular, he said the department is creating 1,500 new full-time positions devoted to contingency operations. DoD will designate them as deployable, emergency essential personnel, and like the rest of DoD’s acquisition workforce, the positions will be exempt from the civilian hiring freeze.

Carter also has ordered each military service and military department to create its own program manager responsible for service acquisitions at the level of General, Admiral or Senior Executive Service. The officials will establish and disseminate best practices and policy for service acquisition, he said.

“They do not do all of the services contracting,” he said. “Services contracting is done pervasively in the military services and other components, and we want to make sure that we touch every place that is contractive for services, which is different from contracting for weapons systems. Our people who contract for services are mostly amateurs, because they’re mostly doing something else as their principal responsibility and services contracting is an ancillary duty. They’re trying to get something else done, and the services are what help them get their principal job done. And I don’t want to turn them into services procurement experts.”

Congress and President Bush created the commission in 2008 to study waste, fraud and abuse in contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its final report to Congress is due in July.

This story is part of Federal News Radio’s daily DoD Report. For more defense news, click here.

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