FEMA's Makeover

Acquisition chief Deidre Lee is getting ready for the next Katrina - just don't ask about those no-bid contracts.

Deidre Lee disagrees with much of the criticism levied against her agency. She is deputy director of operations and chief acquisition officer for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"The contracting shop down here, the Katrina folks, should be applauded," she says. Sure, there were mistakes, but they also helped a lot of people, she says.

Lee came to FEMA in April after a short stint as assistant commissioner at the General Services Administration. She's held a variety of senior procurement positions in government, including head of the Office of Management and Budget's Office of Federal Procurement Policy during the Clinton administration.

The following is an edited transcript from a September interview with Government Executive.

Q: What would you do differently if Hurricane Katrina were to happen today?
A: The key is to have many pre-positioned contracts. FEMA has put in place individual assistance, public assistance and technical assistance contracts, [as well as] purchasing methods for tarps, tents, water, ice and others. The second thing that's really important is teaching people how to use them. It's not enough just to hang a contract out there and hope. You've got to have good contract management and administration. You've got to have people know what you've contracted for and do a visual inspection. You can't do that if you don't know what the contractual agreement was.
Q: Have you been able to hire more people to help with that?
A: Apparently there were only about 50 contracting officers in FEMA at Katrina time. We've now been authorized to add 40 slots from the fiscal year 2006 supplemental, and there are about 40 more slots which we hope we'll get in 2007. [FEMA currently has about 40 vacancies for contracting-related positions.]
Q: During Katrina, FEMA was criticized for awarding large no-bid contracts. Would you want to avoid no-bid contracts in the future?
A: I just do not like that term (laughing). But it's very understandable for the general public, so I understand why it's taken on life in the press. For years and years, we've had "competitive" and "noncompetitive" contracts. It could be noncompetitive for a number of reasons. One of them is urgent and compelling [need].

What happened under these contracts that are referred to as "no-bid" is that FEMA was beginning a competitive process and Katrina hit. We said, "Based on our market research and what we know now, these people can do it. We've got a big issue on our hands." They said, "This is urgent and compelling," which is perfectly allowable under the law. Not preferred, but allowable. They said, "Based on that, we're going to go to these people, and we're going to help our victims. We're going to say that's the most important thing."
Q: Would that happen again?
A: Well, now we've pre-positioned these contracts. So for example, now we have six individual assistance and technical assistance contractors in place [Shaw Environmental and Infrastructure of Baton Rouge, La.; Fluor Enterprises Inc. of Irving, Texas; Partnership for Temporary Housing in Falls Church, Va.; the Disaster Solution Alliance in Tampa, Fla.; Bechtel National of San Francisco; and CH2M Hill of Englewood, Colo.]. When we have an emergency or a disaster, we would compete among the six. So, they almost have to win it twice. At the time of a disaster, you don't want to be sitting there going, "What are our payment terms and conditions? Do you have the number of people you need cleared?" You want to be able to have people up and ready who can respond.
Q: Even in an emergency, you would hold a mini-competition with those six?
A: That certainly is the plan, to go among the six. There might be one who says, "I just can't respond in that time frame." That's fine, but the other five are in the game, so let's go.