Neal Fox | IGs have been hoist with their own petard

Contracting in perspective

Neal Fox

The recent flap between the General Services Administration's inspector general and GSA officials over IG procurement audits, coupled with others like it'including the Defense Department IG report on using non-DOD contracts'highlights a disturbing trend: Sensationalism has become a primary goal for IGs.

IG reports have taken on a tone of exaggerated self-importance. The result is criticism for criticism's sake'and IT procurement has found itself an easy target. IGs could examine their own grandmother's cookie-baking process and find a lack of proper compliance with the recipe and a critical failure of oversight by Grandpa.

Ironically, their approach is turning IGs into a group that no longer matters. Worse: They are hindering their own mission of enhancing good government by weeding out bad actors. They are killing innovation, squashing forward-looking management, and otherwise hindering higher levels of government efficiency and effectiveness.

Look at many recent IG reports on IT procurements, whether DOD, NASA SEWP, Transportation, GSA or others. One would conclude that every contracting officer in the federal government is inept, lazy, wasteful or a thief. We know that cannot possibly be true, but how do they continue to get away with this?

The recent IG report on DOD's use of the NASA SEWP contract is perhaps typical: An IG headline declared they had found 98 violations on the 111 SEWP orders reviewed. Peel away just one layer of that onion, and you will see that most of the so-called violations consisted of 'failure to properly document the contract file.' So what? Is the equivalent of contractual jaywalking worth the headline that implied gross violations and negligence? That sensationalism is abuse of authority.

IGs play word games to heighten sensationalism. A convenient tool is to declare that there was 'possible' wrongdoing. The headline implies it actually occurred. So the IG has achieved the objective and moves on to the next victim. Another tool is grouping trivial items with significant ones to distort statistics. They declare that a very high percentage of contract orders reviewed had problems, when only a couple of issues were even worth mentioning. They group a large number of extremely minor issues with the few real offenses, and then declare that a high percentage did not pass scrutiny.

They also enjoy obfuscation by equivocation. The DOD IG report on Treasury's FedSource program is full of statements declaring boldly that there were X number of contracts with 'inadequate or no' something or other. And given the IG's definitions of 'inadequate,' 'less than fully,' 'potentially,' 'not supported by' and such equivocations'well, you get the picture. Their mincing of words has taken redefining what is is to new levels.

The DOD IG recently declared that DOD needs to give preference to internal DOD contracts. Excuse me, but who put the IG in charge of policy development? And why is that even good for government? The net effect is a retreat into more manpower-intensive and wasteful processes for DOD at a time when we need them to focus on their core mission.

That is wasteful mediocrity and bad for government'all courtesy of the IG.

IGs have become a threat to good government by deterring innovation and breeding an environment of risk-averse contracting.

The IG function is seriously broken. They have become what they purport to hate, namely dictatorial, wasteful and a primary cause of institutionalized mediocrity in government. IGs need to promote good government instead of encouraging stagnation by requiring agencies to blindly follow inefficient but IG-tested procedures. It is not the IG that matters. It is the mission that matters.

Neal Fox is former assistant commissioner for acquisition at GSA. He now manages Neal Fox Consulting (nfox@usa.com).

About the Author

Neil Fox is the former assistant commissioner for commercial acquisition at GSA's Federal Supply Service, and is now principal at Neal Fox Consulting.

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