What’s Brewin’: Clear as Mud

The Task Order Iron Curtain

The Defense Department spent well over $400 billion in 2006 and likely will again in 2007. The department has asked for another $481.4 billion for fiscal 2008. It's getting harder to figure exactly what a lot of that money buys.

That's particularly true with services contracts, the favorite vehicle for information technology procurements, whose collective price tag has doubled over the past three years.

The Government Accountability Office reported in 2003 that services contracts totaled $79 billion that year. By 2006, the value of those contracts had jumped to $126 billion, with little or no visibility into the contracts, as the House Appropriations Committee said in its report on the 2008 Defense appropriations bill.

Yeah, many service contracts have Web sites, but if you're an ordinary Joe, try digging out any meaningful information from these sites unless you have a Commercial and Government Entity code or in extreme cases a Common Access Card with a digital certificate issued only to uniformed or civilian personnel or contractors -- hurdles that make a mockery of the word "transparency."

The Task Order Fence

Major service contracts award task orders that are competed among a large pool of vendors that won the right to bid on the task orders.

But, unlike traditional request for proposal procurements, in which agencies lay out in detail what the government wants to buy and what it intends to do with it (in a visible, public process), task orders valued in the multimillion-dollar range are bid and issued in a nonpublic, opaque process.

For example, as of Aug. 17, the Defense Information Systems Agency had issued 4,010 task orders worth $1.897 billion on its Encore IT services contract. But the DISA Web site provides only barebones information about those task orders.

It's an expensive shopping list of items -- all of which beg explanation. For example, on July 18, DISA awarded a $2.1 million task order to Northrop Grumman for something called a "DIA strategic player." What exactly is a strategic player? A souped-up Xbox console maybe? And why does the Defense Intelligence Agency need $2.1 million worth of it?

Agencies that are Encore customers, such as the National Ground Intelligence Center, operated by the Army Intelligence and Security Command, use multiple task orders for procurements that could be managed adequately in a standard RFP. The intelligence center has issued about 20 task orders with a total value of $35.3 million in the past three years for something called Project Harmony.

Several years ago I could have clicked on a link on any of these task orders and found detailed information on Project Harmony. But last year, DISA removed this function from the Encore Web site, with a spokesman explaining to me that its customers were concerned about the sensitivity of information contained in those links.

But such sensitivity concerns often fail in the Google Age. Harmony is not a high-tech barbershop quartet project but rather, according to the Federation of American Scientists, a single comprehensive bibliographic reference to all available primary source foreign technical and military documents. Not a real big secret.

There is real disharmony in a task order process so byzantine that, according to the House report, Defense had only managed to review 3 percent of the service contracts it issued in 2005.

Submerged Seaport Contracts

DISA is not the only outfit that provides scant information about task orders on megabillion-dollar service contracts. The Navy also uses the task order shopping list approach with its $20 billion Seaport vehicle, which has even less detail than the Encore site.

For example, over the past two years the Navy has used Seaport to award a total of $342 million in enterprise resource planning contracts to IBM and General Dynamics, with IBM grabbing $272.6 million of the total - including a $150.7 million task order this June and a $121.9 million one in June 2006. One task order to GD last year totaled $69.4 million.

The Seaport Web site provides scant information on what kind of ERP systems the Navy bought with its pile of taxpayer dollars or how it plans to use the systems.

Considering its poor history with ERP programs, maybe the Navy decided to use Seaport to hide the details. GAO reported in September 2005 that the Navy sunk $1 billion into four failed ERP projects since 1998, with IBM as one of the contractors, according to Computerworld.

Oh well, those were just pilot projects -- maybe it was worth $1 billion to learn something, such as folks who buy ERP software and expect it to work the first time are really saps. (Get it?)

GPS III CAC Card Black Hole

It looks like RFPs -- once a good source of information on what Defense intends to buy -- are now going into a "sensitive" black hole.

I'm GPS-obsessed. So, I was really looking forward to reading the GPS III satellite RFP released by the Air Force Space Command's Space and Missiles System Center last month.

Alas, it turns out the Space and Missiles System Center decided to hide the GPS III RFP in its bidders library, which requires a CAC card and digital certificate, which Defense does not issue to reporters.

I did ask (nicely) if they intended to issue me a CAC card.

You know the answer.

Hey, Does Voicemail Count?

I said last week in my Organizational Chaos item on the Joint IED Defeat Organization that I had not received a response on a call I had made to the JIEDDO public affairs shop.

I received several e-mails from JIEDDO this week, which said Christine DeVries, a JIEDDO PA, did leave me a voicemail last Thursday (but she did not call me back Friday) and they wanted me to know they think voicemail counts as a response.

So noted, even though Marine Sgt. Herbierto Gonzalez -- my long-suffering platoon sergeant -- taught me that "almost" only counts with horseshoes and hand grenades.

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