The District of Columbia’s Office of Contracting and Procurement (OCP) now can relax. Six months of planning and hard work led to a well-received presidential inauguration ceremony that came off without a hitch.

“You are hearing a collective sigh of relief – that I can tell you,” David Gragan, CPPO, the district’s chief procurement officer, told GovPro.com.

As many as 2 million gathered on the Mall and around the Capitol to witness the festivities, and tens of thousands more crowded along the parade route. Although the D.C. thermometer read 30 degrees at the start of the swearing-in, a powerful wind chill made attendees feel like the temperature had dipped into the teens.

The purchasing effort for the historic event was massive.

“We know that we purchased a total of approximately $15 million in commodities, goods and services,” Wil Giles, OCP’s chief of staff, told GovPro.com. “But that does not take into account personnel costs in terms of overtime and salary costs – this is strictly for commodities, goods and services that were purchased by the District of Columbia.”

Gragan added that most of the purchases were for “pretty routine stuff, like food and water for the shiftworkers.”

“We had 4,000 visiting law enforcement officers, and they were 12-hours-on and 12-hours-off shifts all over the city, and they had to be fed,” Gragan said. “Most of those things were kind of common.”

For the law enforcement and security personnel, OCP procured at least 1,000 new 800-megahertz handheld radios. Total value of the purchase: $3.6 million. OCP also contracted for 1,965 hotel rooms, most with a minimum of three- and four-night stays, depending on the property, for visiting police. The value of those rooms: $2.3 million.

Among the dozens of separate contracts that OCP processed for the inauguration, there were routine purchases for items such as boxed lunches, Band-Aid adhesive bandages and gauze pads. There also were a few unusual acquisitions, such as a last-minute order for hundreds of megaphones.

In addition, the availability of prisoner holding cells for the inauguration came up for discussion.

“The district’s police chief in one meeting made an off-the-cuff comment that ‘We are going to need to establish holding cells somewhere in case we have any kind of mass arrests,’ and when I heard the comment, I had to immediately ask myself, ‘What are the contracting implications? Are these cells that we already own, or are they something that we are going to have to procure fencing for? What’s the spec for a holding cell; what does one even look like?’” Gragan explained. “That’s the first time probably in my 15 or so years of doing this business that we actually purchased holding cells.”

Early planning was key

City officials from 12 district agencies held their first planning session for the inauguration on June 6, 2008.

“Dan Tangherlini, the city administrator for the district, cautioned everyone to get their contracting needs in to my office as early as possible so we could go through a full competitive process and put in place good, high-value contracts, so that we wouldn’t have to do contingency contracting,” Gragan told GovPro.com.

The agency’s approach to contingencies: Expect the unexpected.

“Knowing that there are some things that are simply unpredictable, two of us were issued half-million-dollar procurement cards, which we kept in our pockets during the event, activated them about five days before the inauguration and deactivated them soon after the festivities,” Gragan explained. “So we did have that flexibility, with about a million dollars worth of procurement power in our pockets, in case it was needed for contingencies. Thankfully, the cards were not needed, which reflects good planning on the part of district agencies.”

Early planning was crucial in obtaining the needed hotel rooms.

“Visiting law enforcement officers had to be housed somewhere, and that meant that they had to have hotel rooms,” Gragan said. “Knowing about the huge influx of visitors that were going to come here to view this inauguration, and knowing that the value of a hotel room was going to just massively increase as we led up to this event – if we had not been involved in planning six months ago, we would never, ever have been able to secure those 1,965 hotel rooms that we needed.”

Much of OCP’s planning and purchasing focused on the hordes of attendees expected for the presidential swearing-in.

“Whether it’s the Olympics or a visit by the pope, or an inauguration, there are these mega-events, where cities, counties and other jurisdictions suddenly have to deal with an influx of hundreds of thousands or more people, and that creates, obviously, public safety issues,” Gragan said. “So a lot of our contracting was related to public safety and crowd management.” Weather and attendees’ health were factored into the planning, Gragan added.

“A lot of our contracting was related to the fact that we knew we were going to have cold weather. We knew we were going to have populations from the very young to the very old, all congregating in one very small geographic area at one time. It was almost inevitable that we would have cardiac issues, that we would hypothermia issues – that we would have all sorts of issues like that.”

Be involved, right from the start

Perhaps the “greatest and most positive lesson learned” from the event-planning experience was the importance of getting the procurement department and other support functions involved in the planning process from the start, Gragan noted.

“[A]nd I think that’s just the vision of our mayor, Adrian Fenty,” Gragan told GovPro.com. “From the very outset, contracting was involved.”

For procurement managers who don’t receive an invite to that first planning meeting, Gragan advised: “Just force yourself in.”

“Let the contracting function be part of the first and every meeting related to planning for these mega-events,” he said. “That’s the only way that we’ll really hear the conversations that relate to communications at intersections, which is where those megaphones were discussed, or just crowd management, when the issue of prisoner holding cells came up.

“So it’s that kind of involvement – early involvement – that I think I would advise any procurement person to take. Just force themselves into the equation early on.”

Another piece of advise from Gragan: “Don’t go back to the office and sit and wait for somebody to come to you with a requisition.”

“Just be out there and forcefully engaged, agency head by agency head, in asking the questions. Every week I would say, ‘We should be calling’ the agencies that we are serving and asking, ‘Have you had any new contracting needs, are you going to be needing food for shift workers?’ The kind of questions that we don’t expect them to ask until the very last minute we can be asking in advance if we’re thinking about it.”

Selecting your procurement team for a mega-event

An intense project such as the inauguration is a great way to train future purchasing leaders, Gragan noted.

“Wil Giles and I, from the very outset of this, decided that we didn’t necessarily want to pick our most senior contracting professionals to support us in this effort, so we put together a team of 12 or 15 contracting professionals – some senior, but some very, very junior,” he said. “The idea being that tomorrow’s leaders could cut their teeth on this very important exercise. So we selected a group of what I consider very much the future of contracting in the district government, and we let those people, under pretty close supervision by Wil and myself, actually take the lead, and they just really impressed us with their ingenuity.

“I think it’s really imperative that you don’t necessarily appoint your best traditionalists to the team. Maybe take the most flexible procurement personnel that you have, which might include people that you’ve never really battle-tested, you’ve never really put them in a situation like this. I think most of us as managers can look at our employees and determine who we think are tomorrow’s leaders. I think those are the kind of people you want to bring onto a team like this.”

Capturing the lessons learned

As OCP geared up for the Obama swearing-in, the agency checked to see what documentation had been retained from previous inaugurations.

“We did a pretty good canvass of this office and the homeland security agency, to find out what notes had been left from four years ago, and there was very little information,” Gragan said. “What would have been useful in planning for the 2009 inauguration would have been a nice list of the contracts that had been put in place at past inaugurals.”

To ensure that district procurement personnel can get up to speed quickly for future inaugurals, OCP is conducting some post-event analysis.

“Both Wil Giles and I are working on consolidating the comments of all the agencies that we served on what the procurement office could have done better, what we did well and what we should plan to do differently four years from now, and that document will be our after-action report,” Gragan explained. “It will stand alone here in this office, but it’ll also be incorporated into the larger, citywide after-action report.”

Gragan added: “When the crowd leaves town, this event’s not over. It’s really not over until you’ve documented all the lessons learned, and I think the after-action documentation is actually one of the most important things we capture.”