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To Do the Impossible Job

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Recent news about private military contractors (PMC) confirms the obvious; the federal government needs to improve both the quantity and quality of resources it devotes to doing PMC oversight.

While PMC do, at times, screw up through their own actions and choices, I think it fair to say that most of them strive to do the right thing. But they can only be as good insofar as they have a knowledgeable client that clearly spells out what is expected and how the work should be done.

Now consider the just published, must read article that ProPublica co-published with Newsweek. It examines U.S. efforts to train the Afghan National Police. An honest, effective Afghan police force is crucial if Afghanistan is ever going to be able to function on its own.

For many years DynCorp held the contract and encountered all sorts of problems. Some were DynCorp's own fault but many were not. When the client, as in the U.S. government, sets ridiculous requirements failure become inevitable:

The people who oversaw much of the training that did take place were contractors--many of them former American cops or sheriffs. They themselves had little proper direction, and the government officials overseeing their activities did not bother to examine most expenses under $3,000, leaving room for abuse. Amazingly, no single agency or individual ever had control of the training program for long, so lines of accountability were blurred.

...

It's practically impossible to produce competent police officers in a program of only eight weeks, says a former senior DynCorp executive, requesting anonymity because he continues to work in the industry. But that was the time frame State and Defense set for the course. "They were not going to be trained police officers. We knew that. They knew that," the former executive says. "It was a numbers game." In fact, the course has now been cut from eight weeks to six in order to squeeze in more trainees. ("We believe the training is appropriate under the circumstances," says Assistant Secretary of State David Johnson. DynCorp spokesman Douglas Ebner says the basic-training course is part of a more extensive 40-week program, and is supported by further "field monitoring, mentoring, and advising." Training hours have been extended to make up for the lost weeks, he says. DynCorp does "not make the policies, recruit the police candidates, or design the program," he adds, saying the company has "fully met" its objective of providing highly qualified police trainers.)

DynCorp's defense smacks of the Nuremberg defense, i.e., it was just following orders "to produce highly qualified police trainers" when, in fact, the goal is to produce qualified and competent Afghan police. But, in truth, DynCorp is correct. It should not be held at fault for trying to do the impossible, as in impossible to produce competent police officers in a program of only eight weeks. While Don Quixote could dream the impossible dream, contractors should not be paid to do an impossible job.

Of course, DynCorp could have said, this is impossible, it won't work, and we're not going to do it. That would be an ethical business practice. As any contractor knows, sometimes you just have to tell the client that it can't have what it wants. Yet, the recent decision by the GAO to reopen the competition for the police training contract, for which Xe Services (formerly Blackwater) had heretofore been considered a leading contender, means that DynCorp is still willing to take the money to do a job that is, unless the State Department radically changes its contract requirements, virtually impossible to successfully achieve.

The article makes clear that when it comes to oversight on this contract State is AWOL:

Those failures should have been no surprise. The audit also found that State routinely short-staffed its contract-monitoring office in Afghanistan. At one point, only three contract officers were on the ground overseeing DynCorp's $1.7 billion training contract. A former DynCorp official who worked in Afghanistan, asking not to be named because he remains in the government contracting business, says he asked the State Department repeatedly for concrete goals for the police contract but never got firm answers. "I'd ask them: 'Please explain to me what a successful training program was. What are the standards you want us to apply?' There was no vision for the future."

The ProPublica article is just another depressing example of how badly government falls down on the job. This is worse than not just providing enough auditors or contracting officers, although that is still a significant problem. As William Solis, director of defense capabilities and management for GAO, testified to the U.S. House Appropriations defense subcommittee on March 17 shortcomings include a lack of sufficient and sufficiently trained military personnel and civilian employees to oversee contractors day-to-day during wartime operations. For example, in Afghanistan, there was concern the military didn't have people with enough knowledge of trades such as plumbing and electrical wiring to oversee contractors doing those jobs.

This is about being able to write a realistic job goal. If the U.S. government can't do that then why expect a contractor to pull its fat out of the fire?

If you think this is an exaggeration consider that when President Obama announced his plan to send another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan everyone recognized this meant tens of thousands more contractors would be accompanying them. Yet according to Solis:

On December 1, 2009, the President announced that an additional 30,000 U.S. troops would be sent to Afghanistan to assist in the ongoing operations there, and the Congressional Research Service estimates that between 26,000 and 56,000 additional contractors may be needed to support the additional troops. However, during our December 2009 trip to Afghanistan, we found that only limited planning was being done with regard to contracts or contractors. Specifically, we found that with the exception of planning for the increased use of LOGCAP, USFOR-A had not begun to consider the full range of contractor services that might be needed to support the planned increase of U.S. forces. More important, officials from USFOR-A's logistics staff appeared to be unaware of their responsibility as defined by DOD guidance to identify contractor requirements or develop the contract management and support plans required by guidance.

Let's hope that at this Wednesday's hearing, to examine Defense Department and State Department contracts for police training in Afghanistan, including the State Department's Civilian Police (CIVPOL) Program contract, members of the Senate Ad Hoc Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight will minutely scrutinize all the contract requirements and goals.