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Contracting Reform: Less Than Meets the Eye?

Michael Cohen at Democracy Arsenal looks at President Obama’s efforts to reform defense contracting and is less than impressed:

[W]hat goes unanswered is who is going to carry out the President’s orders. What is not included in the President’s plan is how he plans on dealing with the crisis in the government contracting workforce. Take the Pentagon for example. Over the past several years “acquisition workforce has dwindled by 25 percent, while the contracting workload has increased by a factor of seven.” The Defense Contract Management Agency alone has lost more than half its workforce and according to a Pentagon estimate “in 1997 one auditor was responsible for $642 million in private contracts; today one auditor is responsible for $2 billion in private contracts.”

This problem is only going to get worse as more than half of all contract auditors are expected to retire within the next 10 years. What is needed are not only more contract management officials, but the Pentagon also needs to make this career path an attractive one for career officers so that they are persuaded to stay with it.

A good point. It’s worth remembering that the Obama memo lays out the parameters for a review process, not its conclusion. The Levin-McCain legislation that Obama backed on Wednesday would creates a new acquisitions czar, the director of independent cost assessment, and a fair reading of the memo suggests that it would view acquisitions officials as the sort of “inherently governmental” functionaries worth keeping. So Cohen might be a bit premature.

Furthermore, the key figures to watch on the review are Peter Orszag, Rob Nabors and Steve Kosiak at the Office of Management and Budget; ; and Bob Gates at the Pentagon. Kosiak, Gates and Gration, at least, understand the role for qualified and independent acquisition officials at the Defense Department. (Gration is a recently-retired Air Force general.) Speaking about Kosiak, longtime defense-reform gadfly Winslow Wheeler told me, “I know him, I like him, he’s a smart guy, and he’s well informed. It’s gonna be a real test for him [to see] whether he can translate his academic talents into bureaucratic talents to fight the bureaucracy on this and make new regulations that really mean something.” All of this remains to be seen, but Cohen might have put his finger on a target that the review is likely to acquire anyway.

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