08/10/2010 12:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Burying Your Mistakes: PMC and Arlington National Cemetery

Today, let's revisit a perennial issue in the world of contracting, which is the belief that the private sector always does things more effectively, efficiently than the public sector. In that regard let's take a look at a different kind of PMC; I'll call them private mortuary contractors.

When troops die in a war and are returned home for burial to a place like, say, Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) there is an expectation that this national resting place, where more than 330,000 individuals have been buried, including service members from every major conflict and war, and which conducts approximately 6,400 funerals a year, an average of 27 to 30 funerals per day, will not screw up.

Of course, as we now sadly know that expectation is wrong.

Thanks to a series of investigations that started on July 16, 2009, when the online magazine published the first of a series of articles regarding mismanagement, the U.S. Army Inspector General released a report in June finding major flaws in the operation of Arlington National Cemetery. The IG found hundreds of mistakes associated with graves at Arlington National Cemetery, including unmarked or improperly marked graves, incorrect information in the Cemetery's records about whether graves were occupied, and mishandling of cremated remains, including multiple occasions where urns of cremated remains were found in the Cemetery's landfill.

The IG found that the failure to implement an effective automated system to manage burials at the Cemetery contributed to these mistakes. The IG also found that the contracts awarded to acquire components of the proposed system for the Cemetery failed to comply with applicable federal, Defense, and Army regulations.

On July 27 the Senate Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight released a staff memo detailing the mismanagement of contracts at Arlington National Cemetery. That mismanagement is worse than we thought. "The Subcommittee has also learned that the problems with graves at Arlington may be far more extensive than previously acknowledged. The Subcommittee has obtained information suggesting that 4,900 to 6,600 graves may be unmarked, improperly marked, or mislabeled on the Cemetery's maps."

Now, not all the problems at Arlington were not just the result of the contractors. The tensions between former Superintendent John C. Metzler and former Deputy Superintendent Thurman Higginbotham certainly played a role. Yet the lack of oversight of the contractors paid to develop a new system to automate the management of burial operations has led us to the current status quo that ANC still does not have a system that can accurately track graves and manage burial operations.

Here are some excerpts worth thinking about:

In November 2002, the Capital District Contracting Center at Fort Belvoir awarded a $64,000 contract to Standard Technology, Inc. (STI) to develop the Interment Scheduling System (ISS), a database for Cemetery officials to schedule burials. The contract was modified three times to increase the funding to $130,000 and extend the delivery date to September 30, 2003.
Almost immediately, Cemetery officials found that ISS did not work. According to the former Information Technology manager for the Cemetery, ISS was "extremely unstable ... it can't interoperate ... you can't do anything with it."
An engineering firm that received a separate contract to evaluate ISS agreed, finding that ISS was "not well designed or implemented."

Despite this recommendation, Cemetery officials decided to maintain and expand the current version of ISS. In 2005, Alpha Technology Group, Inc. (ATG) received nearly $1.7 million in contracts to support ISS. ATG received nearly $4 million in additional contracts from 2006 to 2009 for services at the Cemetery, including contracts for repeated attempts to fix problems with ISS.

In 2006 and 2007, the Cemetery began work on a new version of ISS. According to Cemetery officials, ISSv2 would "provide the same functionality as the current ISS ... [and] increase the accuracy of interment data." ISSv2 would also include a master calendar for scheduling funerals.

In 2007, the Cemetery and Army officials reported to Congress that ISSv2 was currently being "tested and modified" and would not be used until various problems were fixed and additional components developed.

According to the former IT manager for the Cemetery, the Cemetery never received a
working version of ISSv2 from the contractor, Offise Solutions, an 8(a) small and disadvantaged business started by a former employee of STI. She stated:

We are now testing it and it is crashing. ... I'm running the scenarios that are based on how you bury people here at Arlington Cemetery and if I can't get two people in the same grave that are a husband and a wife, you've got a problem. ...
I don't know, quite honestly, how that contract was paid as but the deliverable was never given to us. We could not operate on that.

The Cemetery also failed to digitize its paper burial records and track graves. In 2004 and 2005, the Center for Contracting Excellence awarded a series of sole-source contracts to Offise Solutions, the same contractor involved in the creation of the failed ISSv2, to scan and digitize the Cemetery's 300,000 paper records. The Army Inspector General concluded that this project was also a failure. According to the Army Inspector General:

Evidence reflected that the contractor delivered approximately 60 CDs that contained mostly scanned files of burial documentation, and that the contractor was paid at least $800,000 for this work. These records were not delivered in a standardized format and were not stored as part of a database. ANC could not use the data developed under this effort. Evidence reflected that ANC received digitized records sometime in 2004, and that these records were never implemented or used by ANC other than in a test environment for a few months in 2008.

The TCMS program experienced significant problems with program management and oversight. From the beginning of development, the TCMS program lacked the unified, comprehensive management and oversight necessary to keep the program on track.

A. Inadequate Contract Management by Army Officials

Every IT contract for TCMS was awarded by either the Army Contracting Center of
Excellence (now the National Capitol Region Contracting Center) or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers-Baltimore District.

The Army Inspector General found numerous problems with their performance, including:

• "[T]here was no acquisition strategy, no integrated IT system, and a series of IT regulator violations."
• "In general, none of ANC's IT contracts reviewed supporting TCMS efforts contained affirmative determinations of responsibility which are essential to ensure that the contractors selected are capable of performing, ... [as is] required under Federal Acquisition Regulations."
• "For the IT contracts, the 8(a) vendors were identified by ANC and merely submitted to the SBA as the recommended sole source. No government contracting officials conducted an independent review of the 8(a)'s capabilities or assessed the vendors recommended for a noncompetitive award."
• "The majority of contract files lacked a proper determination of fair and reasonable pricing intended to ensure that the government did not overpay for services/items."
• "The Deputy Superintendent, ANC, had no training, no designation letter and stated that he was not a COR [Contracting Officer's Representative]. However, each IT contract effectively listed the Deputy Superintendent as the COR by identifying him as the government point of contact responsible for monitoring all IT contract performance.