What Went Right? What Went Wrong?

The devastation experienced throughout the Gulf Coast region in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has called into question our effectiveness in responding to such disasters.

As a result, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan, Congressional watchdog group, has been asked to evaluate the procurement and contracting community’s preparation for and response to Katrina, Rita, and other disasters.

In a recent report, "Hurricanes Katrina and Rita: Preliminary Observations on Contracting for Response and Recovery Efforts," GAO stresses that unpredictable natural disasters are no excuse for careless contracting practices. The organization’s ongoing review focuses on planning, contract execution, and monitoring of contractor performance.

"GAO plans to take a systematic, crosscutting look at a broad range of issues, including how agencies provided for the use of small businesses and local firms in their acquisition decisions," says David E. Cooper, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, GAO.

"To ensure good contracting outcomes, agencies must have sound acquisition plans, sufficient knowledge to make good business decisions, and the means to monitor contractor performance and ensure accountability," says Cooper. "These components are critical to successfully managing contracts following any disaster, especially catastrophic disasters, such as Hurricanes Katrina and Rita."

To complicate accountability, all levels of government are turning to the private sector to fulfill response and recovery efforts. Recent trends indicate an increase in private contracts to carry out a multitude of services, such as delivery of ice, water, and food, as well as rooftop repair and temporary housing.

"However, as the government increases reliance on contractors, GAO continues to identify system-wide weaknesses in key areas of acquisition," says Cooper.

With review teams in place across hurricane-stricken areas, preliminary fieldwork suggests review and revision of common contracting practices to encourage communication and coordination among purchasers, end users, and contractors; small and local business participation; definition of contract terms and conditions; and contractor monitoring.

GAO further identifies a number of possible underlying causes for problems in contract planning and execution. These include a lack of:

• Transparency in financial information systems and contracting operations;
• Skills and training of acquisition workforce;
• Alignment of responsibilities among key officials in managing awards and oversight of contracts; and
• Policies, procedures, and guidance for managing contracts.

"Far too often, the result of poorly planned and executed acquisitions has been the inability to obtain quality goods and services on time and at a fair price," says Cooper.

The framework of GAO’s analysis is bas'he National Response Plan, prepared by the Department of Homeland Security. Continued review of Katrina- and Rita-related funds used by federal agencies will provide valuable information for all procurement professionals.

With hundreds of billions of tax dollars spent each year on goods and services, acquisitions on all levels of government must be handled in an efficient, effective, and transparent manner. To strengthen disaster response and recovery operations, government agencies need to apply the lessons learned over the past six months.

Preparedness, response, and recovery are issues that challenge the 21st Century procurement community. Lessons learn'he federal level provide cities, counties, school districts, and states with an insightful perspective on public procurement.

To download GAO’s report, visit: www.govinfo.bz/5197-100.