GAO Blasts USAID Contracting in Iraq, Afghanistan

USAID needs better access to information about contractors in order to improve the way the agency conducts business, the Government Accountability Office found in a recent report.

The report, which deals with improving contracting efficiency at the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Pentagon and the State Department, says improvements have been made in recent years by use of the Synchronized Pre-Deployment and Operational Tracker (SPOT) database, the system used by the agencies to better track contractor data. However, while improvements have been made, lack of good contractor information continues to hinder the work done by the agencies.

"Many of GAO's past recommendations focused on improving agency officials' ability to obtain contract and contractor personnel information," according to the report, released last week. "While actions have been taken to address GAO's recommendations, agency officials have noted that their ability to access information on contracts and contractor personnel still needs improvement and SPOT has the potential to bring information together so it can be used to better manage and oversee contractors."

The report comes weeks after the Obama administration announced plans to overhaul the way the U.S. government gives out contracts. It also comes as USAID faces a growing inertia for culture change at the agency, which many experts believe has become outdated and ineffective in spurring long-term development. One expert recently referred to USAID simply as a "contracting agency."

The report deals with contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq, the two primary locations where State, Pentagon and USAID have done work in recent years. In 2006, all three entities signed a memorandum of understanding in which they agreed to use the SPOT database to track contractors.

However, complete information remains unavailable in part because the agencies have not lived up to the terms of the MOU.

"Although SPOT is capable of tracking contractor personnel and contracts as agreed to in the MOU, not all of the required information is being entered and the agencies continue to rely on other systems to obtain information on contractor personnel and contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan," GAO found. "DOD, State, and USAID now require their contractors in Iraq to enter personnel data into SPOT, but only DOD and State require their contractors to do so in Afghanistan."

According to the GAO report, this lack of solid information hinders the ability of USAID to do its job properly.

"USAID did not incorporate information on the contractor resources required to implement the strategy and the means to measure program progress," the report said. "Such information was contained in numerous project and contract documents rather than in a comprehensive strategy. We determined that the lack of a comprehensive strategy or adequate financial data impaired USAID's ability to make informed decisions on resource allocations as it developed the interim strategy."

It remains to be seen what affect yet another damning assessment of the way USAID currently does business will do to foreign assistance reform efforts. Since Obama's election in November of last year, the development community in Washington has clamored for a coordinated, high-level effort to revamp the way the United States gives out international aid. Yet, nearly three months into office, Obama has said little about this kind of reform, with his focus squarely on economic recovery.

About the author

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    David Francis

    David is a Washington-based journalist and former Devex staffer who spearheaded Devex's "Obama's Foreign Aid Reform" blog. He has written for the Christian Science Monitor, Pittsburgh Post Gazette, SportsIllustrated.com, San Francisco Chronicle, Foreign Policy magazine, and the Washington Monthly. David holds an undergraduate degree from the University of Chicago and a graduate degree from Georgetown University.