Commentary

The Disappearing Dichotomy

By David Isenberg
This article appeared in the Huffington Post on February 15, 2010.

One of the very few things that both supporters and critics of private military contractors have agreed on over the years is the need for more government auditors.

Every high level commission that has studied the subject from the 2007 Gansler Commission which said, “Neither the military nor the federal civilian acquisition workforces have expanded to keep pace with recent years’ enormous growth in the number and value of contingency contracts” to the ongoing Commission on Wartime Contracting, which in its interim report last June, found “a critical shortage of qualified contract-management personnel in theater and those that are there are stretched too thin,” has said the same thing.

It is that consensus which in large degree caused Secretary of Defense to call for hiring 20,000 workers to expand the Pentagon’s weapons acquisition corps. Don’t, by the way, be fooled by the word “weapons.” That phrase includes services contracting, as well as hardware, and the services category is where the vast majority of private military and security contractors are to be found.

The reason for Gate’s initiative is that acquisition work force has shrunk precipitously since the 1990s. Following the spending surge after 9/11, that work force was ill equipped to cope with a rapidly escalating contracting workload. Thus, one of the consequences was the increased reliance on contractors to perform program oversight and other duties because the government was short of in-house talent. That, in certain cases, was a bit like asking the fox to watch the henhouse.

Yet now those funny, wacky, analysts over at the RAND Institute say stop. In a new report they say that before the Pentagon rushes to hire more people, it needs to better define what it means to be an acquisition worker and to identify precisely what skills are lacking.

You have to give credit to RAND for being willing to be contrarian. For a think tank that has received lots and lots of funding from the U.S. Defense Department over the years this is hardly the first time it has been willing to take issue with the conventional wisdom.

The RAND report titled “Shining a Spotlight on the Defense Acquisition Workforce — Again” shows that the acquisition work force has grown steadily since the early 1990s.

It says the total number of Defense Department civilians in key acquisition-related occupational groupings increased through the 1980s, reached a peak in 1992, plunged to a low point in 2000, and has climbed since then. Between 1992 and 2007, the number of defense acquisition civilians increased by 14 percent.

How does one explain the dichotomy between the conventional wisdom and the Rand report?

According to RAND the lack of a consistent definition of the acquisition work force skews the data and may lead the Pentagon to hire people who are not really needed, or to neglect to hire in areas that are more critically understaffed, the study suggests.

“The dichotomy between trends based on the data we analyzed and trends based on official counts can be explained by shifts in the acquisition work force definition — in particular, an increased emphasis on including scientists and engineers in the work force count,” the study says.

Whereas in 1992, 38 percent of Defense Department personnel in acquisition-related engineering occupations were counted as part of the acquisition work force, that figure was 65 percent by 2007.

Under the latter scenario, the number of Defense Department civilians in acquisition-related occupations increased dramatically between 1980 and 1992, began to decline until about 2001, and then experienced slight growth through 2007.

The work force that did not include scientists and engineers was relatively stable between 1992 and 2007, RAND analysts note. The number of defense civilians in program management and logistics has increased substantially and consistently since 1980. In contrast, the total number of civilians in the contracting, quality assurance, and auditing areas has declined steadily since the late 1980s.

The decline is most striking in quality assurance (44 percent), auditing (26 percent) and contracting (23 percent).

So, in other words, there really isn’t a difference. Auditors are still desperately needed. It is just that by including scientists and engineers in the weapons acquisition corps definition the Pentagon overstated, either accidentally or deliberately, the number of auditors it actually had.

This is similar to the government including social security funds, which are supposed to remain separate, when trying to obscure the size of the deficit

Indeed, if you have the patience to scroll down to pages 20-21 it says:

Whereas official statistics suggest growth, there has likely been a slight decline in the size of the workforce. It also suggests that the contracting, quality assurance, and auditing occupational groups — groups that would likely have been most affected by increased workload stemming from procurement reforms and increases in service contracts described above — have experienced the most significant declines in workforce size over time.

But the most significant part of the report, at least for me, was this on page 15:

DoD recognizes that workforce management efforts must take a “total force perspective” that includes all military, civilian, and contractor personnel. A key barrier to the total force perspective for AW [Acquisition Workforce] management is a lack of systematic data available on the contractor workforce. Because information on the contractor workforce is completely lacking and because the military portion of the workforce is so small, discussions of AW size tend to focus on the organic, civilian workforce. Even there, data availability poses serious barriers to an analysis of the workforce.

Perhaps all sides could agree, before resuming the eternal debate on presumed contractor cost-effectiveness, that we should at least obtain basic data first. Establishing how many contractors are working for the federal government would be a good first step.

David Isenberg is an analyst in national and international security affairs and a US Navy veteran. He is also a member of the Coalition for a Realistic Foreign Policy, an adjunct scholar with the Cato Institute, and the author of a new book, Shadow Force: Private Security Contractors in Iraq.