Buy Lines: Katrina projects give procurement teams a chance to shine

Stan Soloway

In "Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927," published in 1998, John Barry painted a compelling picture of the long-lasting changes that resulted not only from the great flood, but also from the ways in which the government responded to it and handled the recovery.

Barry and others today are drawing comparisons to the potential for the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to have a similar impact on the social and political landscape of the Gulf Coast.

I don't know if they're right, but Katrina could have a fundamental influence on the discreet and important arena of public-

private partnerships and government procurement. The precise nature of that influence, however, remains undefined.

As in Iraq, recovery in the Gulf Coast has created another unique procurement and mission environment. The effort is the most massive the nation has ever faced and will cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

Much of that money will flow to the affected states and municipalities, but sizable amounts also will be spent through contracts, grants and other assistance vehicles.

Unfortunately, this historic effort comes at a time when the credibility of the federal procurement process is at its lowest ebb in decades. A handful of visible incidents, combined with poor alignment between the procurement and oversight communities, and the growing politicization of procurement, have created an environment of distrust with a propensity for overreaction and intolerance for risk or mistakes.

As the recovery effort progresses, its success will rely, in part, on our collective ability to overcome that propensity and to focus on the real issues and challenges.

For example, this recovery is many times bigger than the total operating budget of every federal civilian agency. Thus, mistakes will be made. But that does not mean those who make the mistakes are criminals.

Likewise, it is ludicrous to think the government would ever have an acquisition community large enough to meet such an unprecedented demand.

Instead, these circumstances inevitably leave the government no option but to augment significantly internal contract administration and program management resources with private-sector partners. Our focus should be on how we can best manage those partnerships to ensure the public's interests are met.

We should focus on how to measure and define accountability in such unique circumstances over the long term. The recovery effort has many goals, including rebuilding the region as fast as possible and jump-starting its economy by involving local businesses.

Innovation and flexibility are needed, the impacts and ramifications of which need to be communicated to all involved. Sadly, however, that communication seems more difficult today than ever.

Contractors have responsibilities, too. Companies assisting with the recovery effort must help government manage its resources and processes, including providing warnings and help when problems arise, even if doing so might seem contrary to the company's immediate interests. They must also reiterate to their employees the importance of stewardship and accountability, not to mention meticulous documentation.

With Katrina recovery comes shared responsibilities. From Congress to the media, agencies and contractors, there is a greater need than ever for context, perspective and partnership.

The mission offers the potential to help rebuild the credibility of our procurement regime and the public-private partnerships it governs. Given the central importance of procurement and partnership to the functioning of government, that is an outcome well worth working toward.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council. His e-mail is soloway@pscouncil.org.

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