Baghdad's Lessons for New Orleans

Contracting is vital to recovery, and it shouldn't be hobbled by politics.

The challenges of rebuilding the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina are daunting and on some levels almost inconceivable. This massive recovery will cost tens of billions of dollars, and the money will be spent fast. In addition to the funds that devolve to state and local governments, a sizable portion will flow to contractors. Many of the issues involved, particularly with regard to contracting, mirror those experienced in Iraq. Indeed, that country presents lessons we should not ignore.

Iraq offers a stark example of how criticisms of procurement practices can become surrogates for political disagreement. Let's be honest. While there certainly were significant procurement errors in Iraq, there is no evidence of widespread intentional malfeasance or fraud. In fact, there is no question that a good portion of the controversy surrounding Iraq contracting was driven by opposition to the Bush administration's policies and further energized by the 2004 presidential campaign. As a result, we hear repeatedly that the federal acquisition corps supporting operations in Iraq feels unsupported and highly vulnerable, and thus officials are increasingly afraid to make decisions, let alone mistakes.

It would be a travesty if that same environment came to pervade Katrina rebuilding. Unfortunately, the finger-pointing and politics started before the storm was over and they continue unabated. So there is reason to believe, and to be concerned, that we again will see politics overtake aspects of the recovery, including procurement. This would be a real disservice to the federal and contractor personnel working around the clock to meet urgent needs and to the people of the Gulf Coast.

Iraq also taught us that many of the flexibilities contained in the Federal Acquisition Regulation and utilized particularly in the early stages are poorly understood by many in Congress and the media, and often do not enjoy the full support of some oversight officials. These flexibilities include limited as opposed to full and open competition, higher levels under which purchases can be made instantly, and more. Capitalizing on these flexibilities enables us to meet the demands for speed and agility integral to any recovery effort. Further, during this recovery, there will be times when some traditional procurement and oversight expectations simply cannot be met. In those cases, instead of assuming scandal and pillorying diligent people, we must stand by workers and let them know we support their mission-focused spirit and trust their integrity.

We know the federal acquisition corps already is understaffed; the addition of massive Katrina requirements only will exacerbate that problem. To ensure adequate contract administration and management, the administration should move quickly to exercise its authority (or, if necessary, seek additional authority from Congress) to deploy teams of acquisition professionals from across federal agencies.

The government will need to augment its acquisition workforce with contract support. Although some in Congress have assumed this presents untenable conflicts, it has been done effectively and largely without incident in Iraq. The same will be true during Katrina rebuilding. Nonetheless, the challenges to the acquisition infrastructure are real and will have an impact. Accountability and this mission can and will co-exist, but the definitions might be slightly different than usual.

Other practical steps could help drive successful outcomes: expanding cooperative purchasing authority for state and local governments affected by Katrina, greater utilization of telework and the creation of a top-level project leadership team with senior representation from every agency and stakeholder community, including Congress.

More than anything, however, this critical mission requires an understanding of the realities we face and unprecedented levels of bipartisan leadership and partnership among all the affected local, state governments and federal agencies, Congress and the contractor community. Without such a partnership, the next several years will be unnecessarily painful and costly. With it, we can achieve something great and important.

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