The Truth About Walter Reed

Since The Washington Post's exposé on the horrendous conditions in portions of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center was published, there has been a never-ending series of explanations and excuses, but, unfortunately, completely inadequate attention to the real issues involved.

Any meaningful discussion of those issues must therefore start by debunking some increasingly popular myths. First, the conditions at the housing unit had nothing whatsoever to do with a contractor or the contracting process. Almost the entire on-site workforce comprised federal civilians being supervised by Army personnel, until a private contractor took over maintenance responsibilities on Feb. 4. As such, it is patently absurd to try to tie the long-standing disgraceful conditions to the contractor who had literally just shown up on the job.

Second, some critics have asserted that while a contractor may not be to blame, the problems are nonetheless traceable to a falloff in civilian employee numbers due to the ongoing competition for the maintenance work. This, too, strains credulity. Army documents clearly show there was virtually no falloff in civilian employment on the Walter Reed site for most of time the competition was under way. In fact, the number of civilian employees in place in 2003 was exactly the same as it was the day the competition study began in 2000. If employee departures were due to the competition itself, it is precisely during that period that we would have seen those departures.

Perhaps even more important, the facility in question, Building 18, was not even open at the time the competition began and didn't reopen until October 2005, and thus was obviously not affected by any workforce dynamics. The real question is why the Army, after deciding to reopen Building 18, did not hire temporary workers or pursue short-term contracts to get the facility in shape. Finally, there is the significant sideshow in which some have claimed that the award of the maintenance contract at Walter Reed was made under "suspicious" circumstances. In fact, the award was made only after the Government Accountability Office and Army Audit Agency discovered substantial discrepancies in the government's proposal-discrepancies that were serious enough to cause the agency to make the extreme decision to decertify the government bid.

Put another way, had this been a competition involving two companies rather than a company competing against the government, and had the Army not taken the action it did, many of the same people chastising the Army for having the temerity to award the contract would be criticizing it for not adequately protecting the integrity of the procurement process.

This is a story about resource priorities, management failures and poor strategic thinking. And it is a story about failing our men and women in uniform. But it is clearly not a story about contracting or competition or outsourcing. Indeed, for those who want to use the Walter Reed case as yet another opportunity to "prove" their views on contracting and outsourcing, this is not the horse to ride.

Nonetheless, significant myths have been allowed to fester. It is time to clarify the record. After all, as someone I admire likes to say, everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but none of us is entitled to our own set of facts.

Stan Soloway
Professional Services Council
Arlington, Va.
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