More than troops will be departing Afghanistan — also a slew of contractors

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Per President Biden’s policy in Afghanistan, the remaining couple of thousand troops will soon return. Now contractors supporting both the troops and a number of services over there are trying to get answers about what’s ahead. For some of the questions, Professional Services Council President and CEO David Berteau joined Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: And David, people forget that when troops move, deploy, come home, whatever it is, there’s a huge string of support that goes and comes with it. So what are some of the questions the council is asking, with respect to this draw down?

David Berteau: Tom, that support of course, is not only essential and fairly ubiquitous, but it’s actually more effective than using military personnel for those kinds of functions and activities. And in addition, of course, there are a lot of contracts in Afghanistan that are not DoD contracts. DoD is talking about their own contracts. But there are contracts from many other agencies: the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, Department of Homeland Security, the Treasury Department – there’s a lot of support contractors in Afghanistan, as around the world. And no one’s talking about the impact on contractors, including, of course, those supporting Afghan forces. Last week, the secretary of Defense said we would seek to continue paying for the Afghan security, forces roughly 300,000, and the U.S. pays their salary. But the U.S. also maintains their equipment, the US contractors provide training and support for them. And there’s been no word as to what happens. We’re talking about tens of thousands of contracting workers over there, both US citizens and host nation and third country nationals. So word needs to come out. Biggest issue though, Tom, is force protection. Because once the US troops are gone, who is providing security? And the Taliban has already said that this violates the May 1 withdrawal in the Doha agreement, and there will be repercussions and more than likely the target for those repercussions would be American contractors and Afghans working for those American companies.

Tom Temin: Yes, in fact, the contract staff outnumbers, the troops, correct?

David Berteau: That’s correct. And even just for those supporting Afghanistan military forces, and those supporting, international development or humanitarian, health care, etc., even far outnumber those. And then on top of that, while DoD is drawing down, other agencies continue to award new contracts, so they’re not leaving, they’re actually probably going to have to beef up their activities there. A lot of unanswered questions, we’ll be raising this with the Defense Department over the coming days, and a lot of our member companies are asking us to weigh in on this.

Tom Temin: And it’s not just the Defense Department, too. USAID and the State Department probably have allied programs that have contractor support in that country. And we don’t really know whether those will continue or kind of get sucked out along with the whole troop drawdown.

David Berteau: They do. And past experience, both in Afghanistan and Iraq and in other places, leads us to conclude that the Defense Department is paying attention to DoD contractors, but they’re in many cases not even aware of contractors for other agencies. That’s more the purview of the chief of mission of the State Department in the embassy. And even then, not everybody knows everything. And so it’s a lot of work that needs to be done, and a lot of questions that need to be answered.

Tom Temin: And I guess the money itself gets hard to track because the skinny budget of the Biden administration has proposed zeroing out to the overseas contingency operations funds, where a lot of that money came from. And yet the Defense budget itself is – basically [the] proposal anyway – is flat. So the question is, where does that money end up dispersed throughout the rest of the accounts that were not [overseas contingency operations]?

David Berteau: We’ve already seen articles being written and op-ed writers opining about the great savings that will come from leaving Afghanistan, and yet what both DoD and others are already saying is that we’re going to be poised to continue to provide security. That actually implies beefing up regional activities in that area, not necessarily inside the boundary of Afghanistan. And if we’re going to keep paying Afghan militaries payroll, which – obviously they can’t pay it themselves, they don’t have any economy to do that – and providing these other contracts supports, that’s not a big savings. In fact, in the initial drawdown it probably cost you more money. You got to do something with all the equipment that’s over there. It’s not free to bring them home or refurbish them. And so there’s a lot of issues there and don’t count those savings ahead of time. The question of whether it comes out of OCO or whether it’s been folded into the base budget, we’ll find out later this spring when we see the FY22 budget come out of the administration, but I have my doubts.

Tom Temin: Yes, I think that’s a fair thing to be in doubt about. We’re speaking with David Berteau. He is president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. And then closer to home, you have been also watching in some detail and commenting on a new GWAC coming out from NITAAC, the CIO-SP4, the fourth in a series going back – what 20, 25 years of these governmentwide acquisition deals for technology products and some concerns.

David Berteau: First, let me start with some good news. We just calculated at PSC the contract obligations for the second quarter of fiscal year ’21, which is the current fiscal year, and that is January, February, March of this fiscal year. And what we saw in civilian agencies is a big increase over the same quarter last year, same amount of money, FY20 and FY21 roughly the same amount of money for each of those agencies, and about a 14% increase year over year in that quarter. That’s good news, because the money is there, and the work is there. And so it’s important for the agencies to be obligating that money. But to obligate it, they need new contract vehicles. So CIO-SP4, which is the Chief Information Officer-Solutions and Partners contract, obviously 3 is the current one, and it expires just about a year from now. So it’s really important to get the new vehicle out there. Many agencies use this governmentwide acquisition contract, hundreds of companies rely on it either as a prime or a subcontractor, and it’s been delayed quite some time. We’ve raised some serious concerns. And the biggest one that I want to mention here is that there are some new approaches to teaming requirements that in our view, threatens to reduce competition and cut off many small and medium-sized businesses from being able to compete for and be awarded a position on this GWAC. We’re waiting to see what the RFP is, it may come out today.

Tom Temin: What are they asking for with respect to teaming? And how would it affect competition?

David Berteau: They’re asking for joint ventures that previously existed, so you can’t actually put a new JV together for purposes of bidding on this. And of course, that limits it to something that’s already making money somewhere. You can’t just create a pre-existing joint venture and get past performance on that, unless there are contracts being awarded to it. So we’re worried it’s going to significantly limit competition. And we’ll see, obviously we’ll see once the RFP comes out, but I’m concerned about it.

Tom Temin: And they’ve got a little bit of a timing problem, because sometimes, given the age we live in, there are pre-award protests on the issuance of an RFP. And so this whole thing could get crunched up against that deadline you mentioned a year off.

David Berteau: A year is not a long time to award something that has hundreds of potential awards and more than a dozen categories of awards and everything from HUBZone companies to emerging large businesses, meaning they used to be small, but now they’ve gotten bigger. And so the complexity of this is significant. And you know, we’ve been for some time after the federal government to take actions to reduce procurement lead time. These are likely to be things that actually expand it rather than reduce it. Not good for the government, not good for the company.

Tom Temin: Well we’ll keep an eye out for that RFP due any time now really as we speak, and I just wanted to ask you for a quick curtain opener on today’s law enforcement conference that the Professional Services Council is running. I presume you won’t have too many speakers calling to defund the police.

David Berteau: Well the law enforcement conference is an annual event that PSC has and we were actually very pleased that today – it’s not too late to register for your listeners. And registrants, by the way, even if they can’t attend the live performance can get a video recording of it so they can see everything that happened there. But in particular, we’ve got a series of folks from the FBI. We’re going to be talking about the upcoming move of many FBI functions and activities as well as contract support to Huntsville, Alabama, from a variety of sources. And so we’re really excited to do this. This is a live issue, a live performance, not pre-recorded. And so you’ve got to be there and ask your questions. Go to www.pscouncil.org and you can get into the conference.

Tom Temin: But they’re not moving to Huntsville out of necessarily choice of FBI leadership but this was something mandated by a couple of congresses ago?

David Berteau: Yes this is provided for in a previous year’s appropriations. I think there are a lot of advantages to decentralizing the government: Less expensive, you’ve got a business base to draw from. I’m not going to get into whether you should go one place or the other. But, you know, Tom, if you sit in Washington, sometimes you get a different view of what’s going on in the world than if you get outside. So I think it’s good for government to be spread out across America.

Tom Temin: Well it’s going to be and the elements going to Huntsville from the FBI – do we know whether they’re primarily drawn from the D.C. area? Or are they also coming from West Virginia, which was originally pulled out of Washington?

David Berteau: A variety of places, right, and as you note, previous congresses have moved activities elsewhere as well. It’s a fluid dynamic. I think one of the lessons of COVID-19, though, is for many activities, it doesn’t really matter where you are physically, the work can be done to support you from a variety of sources. And I think that’s one of the opportunities we’re going to look for. We’re understanding that OPM and OMB are working on new guidance for return to workspaces and what sort of a post-vaccine workforce looks like for DoD. We’re encouraging the government to have an integration of the way they think about federal civilian employees, and the way they think about contractor employees, whether it’s in Huntsville, Alabama; Washington, D.C.; or wherever.

Tom Temin: Alright, you can probably get more house for your money in Huntsville. Maybe that could be the new FBI motto? David Berteau is president and CEO of the Professional Services Council. Thanks so much.

David Berteau: You’re welcome, Tom. Let’s continue this.

Tom Temin: We’ll post this interview at FederalNewsNetwork.com/FederalDrive. Subscribe to the Federal Drive at Podcastone or wherever you get your shows.

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