Stan Soloway | Forging progress on key initiatives

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction issued a massive report in December, which concluded that the U.S. engagement in Iraq was marked, and to an extent doomed, from the beginning by an under-resourced and undermanned infrastructure.

The Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction issued a massive report in December, which concluded that the U.S. engagement in Iraq was marked, and to an extent doomed, from the beginning by an under-resourced and undermanned infrastructure. Likewise, inadequate planning and inadequate attention to the capabilities and resources needed to deliver emergency relief on such a large scale were key factors in the Hurricane Katrina debacle. These crucial lessons are highly relevant to the enormous initiatives being launched to deal with our economic and financial crises.

The Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) is the mammoth, $700 billion initiative to respond to the nation’s financial crisis. By press time, Congress and the new administration will also likely have agreed on a massive stimulus package to spur the economy. As with Iraq and Katrina, both initiatives are driven by emergencies, are highly complex, and are the focus of heightened public attention and expectations. And both might also struggle to deliver on their promise unless the right kind of planning precedes action.

In simple terms, these initiatives must be carefully engineered. Although the details were not available at press time, the economic stimulus package likely includes the retrofitting and green upgrading of the nation’s federal buildings and facilities. But as one Public Buildings Service official noted, PBS does not have immediately available the bench of qualified acquisition, financial, engineering, program and project management skills to oversee and run such an enormous undertaking.

Putting in place that infrastructure, through an appropriate mix of direct hiring and contracts, is an essential first step.

Likewise, the bulk of the billions of relief dollars for the states is likely to go into massive infrastructure upgrades that will require the states to have similarly expanded and sophisticated capabilities, some of which they will need to hire; others they will need to hire contractors to do. Further, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell said in December that when the funds flow to his state, the contractors bidding to do the work will have 30 days, rather than the usual 90 days, to respond to requests for proposals.

Do the states have teams with the right skills and capabilities to properly evaluate, award and administer this potentially large new traunch of contracts? Do the companies have the skills to submit well thought-out proposals in such a short time? There are similar questions with regard to TARP. The program has been something of a movable feast, so it’s been nearly impossible to pin down requirements and fully plan its execution.

Regardless of how the program is ultimately defined, it is widely acknowledged that the government does not have adequate organic capabilities to design and implement a program of this magnitude. Yet while there are many firms with extensive, relevant capabilities to help build and manage the complex systems and programs that will be needed to implement TARP, most can do little but sit on the sidelines until the program’s definition, and thus its requirements, becomes clear. Nonetheless, the program is moving forward.

Let’s return to the lessons of Iraq and Katrina and the challenges of executing programs in highly nontraditional environments.

As we learned the hard way in both instances, and in countless other initiatives, the pressure to act expeditiously must be balanced with the equal need to act thoughtfully and think strategically and broadly. This prominently includes assessing and resourcing the acquisition and management requirements inherent in such endeavors. In the cases of TARP and the economic stimulus package, where the stakes are particularly high, these are lessons we can ill afford to ignore.

Stan Soloway (soloway@pscouncil.org) is president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council.

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