GAO: Agencies not taking advantage of market research on lower dollar contracts

Federal agencies are taking advantage of market research for big dollar procurements, but are missing those opportunities for smaller contracts, an Oct. 9, 2014 Government Accountability Office (GAO) report says.

All 28 contracts GAO reviewed included some evidence of the market research conducted. The contracts GAO reviewed were pulled from the Defense Department, Homeland Security Department, Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Department.

The market research conducted on the 12 higher dollar contracts GAO reviewed tended to be more robust and include more techniques that involved outreach to vendors, such as issuing requests for information to industry. That helped promote competition, the report says.

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GAO says federal agencies need better oversight of contractor-operated systems

Congressional investigators found that several federal agencies are not consistently overseeing security and privacy measures for information systems operated by contractors.

In reviewing six selected agencies, the Government Accountability Office said the agencies generally established security and privacy requirements and had plans to assess the effectiveness of contractor-operated systems. But five of the agencies were inconsistent in such reviews.

For example, the GAO report  released Sept. 9, 2014 said Transportation Department officials responsible for system testing didn’t evaluate whether seven contractor employees had the required background investigation.

“When they did so in response to our audit, they found that three of them did not,” GAO investigators said. “Officials stated that they subsequently removed system access rights for the three contractor employees until their background investigations had been completed.”

Besides DOT, GAO also reviewed the Energy, Homeland Security, and State departments as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and Office of Personnel Management.

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IG: Debarred firms remain listed for transportation set-asides

The Department of Transportation IG has alerted the department that it found three suspended or debarred firms currently listed in state Disadvantaged Business Enterprises directories as eligible to participate in the DBE program.

The IG issued a management advisory stemming from a recent audit into the DBE program, noting that federal regulations explicitly exclude suspended or debarred firms from receiving federally funded contracts.

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Read DOT IG’s letter at: 

Departments underspent on small business R&D commercialization

Several departments underspent on small business programs for the  commercialization of research and development because they left out entire  component agencies from the calculations used to fund the programs, the Government Accountability Office says.

Under two federal programs, agencies must spend a certain percentage of their  outside research and development funding on small businesses R&D efforts  that align with federal priorities.

But the Transportation Department, for instance, excluded the Federal  Aviation Administration from its departmentwide calculation of outside R&D  spending, GAO says in a report released Sept. 9.  The Health and Human Services Department did the same with both the Centers  for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration.

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DOT cost-reimbursement awards did not comply with revised FAR rules, IG says

Administrations within the Transportation Department did not fully comply  with revised Federal Acquisition Regulation requirements on the use of  cost-reimbursement contracts due to a lack of guidance from the DOT on how to  implement the revised regulation, an Aug. 5 DOT inspector general report says.

The IG reviewed 31 cost-reimbursement awards – 11 contracts and 20 task  orders – from six administrations in the DOT that were entered into between July  1, 2011, and May 31, 2012.

Section 864 of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act required amendments to the FAR to provide further guidance on circumstances when  cost-reimbursement contracts are appropriate as well as how to support the  selection of a cost-reimbursement contract and the resources necessary to award  and manage a cost-reimbursement contract.

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DOT employees made $58 million in improper purchase card charges, IG says

Nearly a quarter of all Transportation Department employee purchase card  transactions in fiscal 2010 and 2011 did not comply with DOT rules for employee spending, a departmental Inspector General report says.

During those years, DOT employees spent $277 million in 450,000 transactions  on their purchase cards, the report says. About $58 million of that did not  comply with DOT employee spending controls, the report says.

Purchase cards are routinely used to supplies and services, the report says.

DOT auditors based the results on a sample of 413 purchases in which 84,  totaling $254,000, did not comply with DOT rules.

Offenses ranged from not receiving approval prior to card use, receiving approval for purchases from officials that were not authorized to approve the  purchases and not verifying fund availability prior to purchases.

In the sample, about $93,000 in improper charges were made due to not getting  preapproval for a purchase. About $65,000 came from the wrong person approving  the purchase. And $47,000 came from purchases made without checking if the funds  were available, the report says.

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Forest  Service employees abused travel cards, IG says
Commerce  employees made improper purchases with agency cards, report says

DOT struggles to define acquisition workforce needs, says GAO

The Transportation Department lacks the data to properly determine  acquisition workforce needs and goals for its operating administrations, which  spent more than $5.6 billion on procurement in fiscal 2011, says the Government  Accountability Office.

In a Jan. 23 report,  GAO says DOT acquisition workforce plans have significant limitations in their  data due to to a lack of internal controls to maintain, compare and reconcile  the data compiled from the department’s 11 operating administrations.

The report says the disparate data means there is no clear plan to meet  future workforce needs, despite GAO finding that four of the 11 administrations  would have to replace 50 percent or more of their contract specialists by the  end of fiscal 2013 to manage estimated attrition and meet staff certificaiton  requirements.

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Also see Transportation Department faces huge shortfall in acquisition workforce,

GDOT audit finds flaws in disadvantaged business certification process

An audit completed amid concerns about airport contracts found flaws in the Georgia Department of Transportation’s process to certify businesses with “disadvantaged” status for government contracts. The internal audit discovered calculation errors in more than two-thirds of the sampling of applications it reviewed.

The findings of the audit raise questions about the disadvantaged business certification process GDOT had been using, but it’s not clear how many of the applicants reviewed went on to win contracts.

The “disadvantaged business enterprise” certifications give firms special consideration, since agencies set goals to award a certain percentage of contracts to disadvantaged firms.

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DHS contractor allegedly fixed an airplane with paper clips

Jerry Edward Kuwata, formerly an executive at an airplane repair company with government contracts, pleaded guilty to “recklessly endangering the safety of aircraft,” the Justice Department announced.

Kuwata, a former executive with WECO Aerospace Systems Inc., concealed facts about repairs from customers and did not ensure that repairs were done according to Federal Aviation Administration regulations, said U.S Attorney Benjamin Wagner of the Eastern District of California. WECO’s clients included the Homeland Security Department and the City of Los Angeles.

“This conduct recklessly endangered the safety of aircraft that used the parts repaired by WECO,” Wagner said.

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Obama’s regulatory chief announces reforms at 30 agencies

Fleshing out agency responses to President Obama’s push to rethink regulations, Office of Information and Regulatory Administrator Cass Sunstein on Thursday announced alterations to long-standing rules under way at 30 federal agencies that together, he said, could save billions in dollars and millions of staff hours.

In his summary of agency progress 120 days after Obama’s Jan. 18 executive order, Sunstein said current paperwork reduction efforts at the Transportation and Labor departments and the Environmental Protection Agency alone could save $1 billion and tens of millions of work hours for state and local governments. He spoke at a talk titled “A Regulatory Look-Back: A First Look” at the American Enterprise Institute, his former employer, and he published a related op-ed on “21st-Century Regulation” in the May 26 Wall Street Journal.

The Obama initiative, Sunstein said, is “a corrective to national debate on regulation that has become polarized and stylized in a way not helpful. One side,” he said, “defends reductions in deaths on the highway, fighting fraud and abuse, keeping air and water clean and our food safe. But more recently, the other side says such regulations impair competitiveness, undermine innovation and ultimately cost jobs.

“They are legitimate arguments, but we can’t be solving serious problems in the abstract. The polarized debate is stuck in the past.”

A modern regulatory approach, he said, cannot rely on “anecdotes or intuition,” but instead must move toward “real-world random testing” of the benefits and harms of regulations. This requires “a change in culture in Washington to focus constantly on what is and what is not working,” he said. In the future, “agencies must hard-wire such scrutiny into agency processes.”

Today’s professional regulators “know much more than they knew during the New Deal and the Great Society,” or even during the 1980s and 1990s, he added. “Now we have state-of-the-art technology for cataloging the impact, risks and costs of regulations. Sometimes in reducing one risk, you increase another and there are ancillary harms,” he said. “But there are also ancillary benefits, and lives are saved.” What is desirable, he said, is “free choice, which both provides liberty and costs less.” Simpler regulations and public disclosure “help produce informed choices and creative approaches,” Sunstein said.

Sunstein made a bid to bridge the partisan divide. “It’s true that people’s values differ, but when the evidence is clear, it will lead in a direction even if there is an intensive difference in values. If a regulation brings big costs and little benefit, then citizens are unlikely to like it regardless of whether they are elephants or donkeys,” he said.

Examples of agencies’ current work include 70 initiatives at Transportation, 50 reforms at the Health and Human Resources Department, and 12 short-term high-priority projects at EPA. The Treasury Department has a five-year paperless initiative that will save 12 million pounds of paper and $400 million, Sunstein said.

EPA recently decided that that classifying milk as an oil — and thus requiring precautions to prevent oil spills — was an unjustifiable burden on dairy farmers, and so the resulting easing of rules will save industry $1 billion in the next decade. Similarly, EPA determined that gas stations no longer need air pollution recovery systems because modern vehicles do the job, saving upwards of $60 million annually, he said. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, he said, will save millions of dollars by eliminating 1.9 million annual hours of redundant employer reporting.

“Many of the [reforms] focus on the small businesses that create jobs,” Sunstein said. “And some are a fundamental rethinking of how things have been done.”

He is also determined to rid the Code of Federal Regulations of references to countries that “no longer exist.”

Laying out four principles, Sunstein said modern regulations should encourage public participation through ready access to scientific and technical information; should be harmonized and simplified to boost innovation; should use quantification to catalog costs and benefits; and emphasize freedom of choice, which “promotes compliance.”

In response to a questioner, Sunstein acknowledged that some of the recent changes were expansions of regulations rather than eliminations.

The National Association of Manufacturers, which has long been critical of Obama’s approach to regulation, reacted to Sunstein’s announcement with a statement: “Manufacturers are encouraged by the Obama administration’s efforts to streamline or remove several outdated and unnecessary regulations to allow manufacturers to focus on what matters most — creating jobs and economic growth. However, manufacturing workers will not fully benefit until the crushing burden of proposed new regulations is brought under control.

“The administration has taken several positive steps recently,” the group said. mentioning EPA’s effort on industrial boilers and OSHA’s work on noise standards as indicators that the administration has heard the concerns of manufacturers. “But new burdensome regulations such as those proposed by EPA to regulate greenhouse gas emissions and change ozone standards are a real threat to job creators and the economy. While today’s announcement is a great step, more must be done to limit the cumulative burden of regulations on businesses.”

Matt Madia, regulatory policy analyst for OMB Watch, a monitoring nonprofit, had a wait-and-see response. “There’s nothing wrong with doing a review,” he said, “but we should not lose sight of the fact that these regulations were written for a reason — to protect the environment, human health and the economy.”

Sunstein said there currently are 120 rules under review at the Office of Management and Budget and that the look back has not caused any noticeable slowdown.

The agency actions released today are for public comment, and should be finalized in “roughly 80 days,” he said.

Sunstein called his initiative “a defining moment” that will have impact decades in the future. He quoted Alexander Hamilton’s first Federalist paper, in which the Founding Father asked whether the country would be guided by “reflection and choice or be forever destined to depend on accident and force.”

– by Charles S. Clark – Government Executive – May 26, 2011 at