Ending waste in war contracting a national security issue

Bob Henke, Commission on Wartime Contracting

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One of the overarching lessons to be drawn from the Commission on Wartime Contracting’s final report — which detailed $60 billion lost due to waste and fraud — is not to point fingers but to begin making changes for the future.

“This is a national security issue, said commission member Bob Henke, a former deputy comptroller in the Defense Department, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “If we’re going to be prepared with troops and equipment — prepared to go to war — we’ve got to take contracting seriously.

The commission presented its final report this week after many interim reports and about three years after it was created by Congress. The report’s price tag of waste and fraud amounts to about $12 million a day. Its recommendations include setting up an independent inspector general to oversee contingency contracting as well as a new dual-hatted position at both the Office of Management and Budget and the National Security Council to better link the budget with foreign policy.

Cultural changes

Henke said the final report is a call for major change. “We need a lot of reform,” he said, “and we need it urgently.”

Many of the commission’s recommendations center on fixes to contracting culture.

“We weren’t an auditor,” he said of the commission’s role. “They have plenty of audit help and investigative help on individual contracts. We tried to take it up a couple of levels and be a little more strategic about what needs to be fixed to get this right.”

One of the problems is that service acquisition is given short shrift, he said, and not viewed as a core competency at many agencies. This presents a problem considering that about 60 percent of the Pentagon’s contracts are now spent on services not products, Henke said. And most contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan were services-based.

Still, that part of the contracting world is viewed as secondary or a “back-office shop,” he said when, really, “acquisition professionals need to be at the table.”

The results in war zones “show us that services contracting is not simple or a secondary function,” Henke said. “They need to get much more professional about it.”

‘A drive for reform’

For such a large and seemingly intractable problem, Henke said, “There has to be a drive for reform,” from all quarters: Congress, which will hold hearings on the report, the press and federal agencies.

“The dominant thing that Congress can do is provide resources to the contingency contracting workforce and the contingency contracting functions to make sure we don’t forget these lessons,” he said.

The press should hold policymakers accountable and “reform-minded” agency leaders must continue their efforts at bolstering service contracting, he explained.

“The way we went to war last time — we can’t do that again. We can’t afford it financially and we shouldn’t do it operationally.”

Still, he said he remains clear-eyed about the long and hard reform effort ahead.

“It’s not a fix that’s going to happen in one legislative cycle or even two; this is a longterm thing,” he said. “But let’s not forget these lessons before they go cold.”

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