On Contract

By Dan Dupont / November 11, 2008 at 5:00 AM

The Washington Post today looks somewhat skeptically at President-elect Obama's plans to "reverse years-long trends, including pork barrel spending by Congress, the tendency of government employees to leave to work for government contractors and a sharp rise in the use of no-bid contracts."

Obama "also wants to make federal buying systems more efficient," the Post writes, with the Pentagon an obvious target.

Contracting specialists, former federal procurement officials and trade group representatives said that to fulfill those promises, the Obama administration will have to summon the will to effect a huge cultural change inside the government to take procurement more seriously.

Government acquisitions programs have long been plagued by delays and cost increases, but experts say the problems have worsened in recent years as the size of the federal workforce has barely grown even as the amount of spending on services, technology and other goods more than doubled. The Clinton administration cut the number of procurement workers as part of an effort to trim red tape, and the Bush administration accelerated the trend with a philosophical commitment to outsourcing and small government.

An annual Government Accountability Office assessment of Defense Department weapons programs helps illustrate some of the problems. Planned commitments on systems rose from $790 billion in 2000 to $1.6 trillion in fiscal 2007, the report found. At the same time, the amount that programs exceeded cost estimates soared from $42 billion in 2000 to $295 billion last year. Average delays of the programs examined by the GAO increased from 16 months to 21 months.

"They're inheriting an almost broken procurement system" said Charles Tiefer, a contracting law professor at the University of Baltimore Law School. "During the last eight years, a lot of the critical oversight machinery was undercut or neglected."