If at first you don't succeed

Four things Lackland will do differently

What the Air Force did wrong:

  • Having inexperienced staff evaluating bids

  • Not having enough senior-level overview of the process

  • The Independent Review Team was not involved in the A-76 study from the beginning

  • Ambiguous language in the Lackland requirements document

What it will do next time:
  • Implement training along each step of the A-76 process

  • The Air Force Secretary will closely review large A-76 studies

  • Involve the Independent Review Team in A-76 studies from the beginning, right after the requirements document phase

  • Make the requirements documents more performance-based, meaning the Air Force will concentrate more on clearly identifying what needs to be accomplished rather than describing how it should be accomplished

'We're getting out of the business of telling people how to do something instead of what we need them to do,' Col. John Vrba said.

Courtesy of the Air Force

Kathleen Miller, staff director in the Air Force Program Executive Office for services, says employees weren't prepared to deal with A-76's complexities.

If senior Air Force officials have learned anything from a highly visible A-76 fiasco at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, it's the importance of training.

Training'of review officials, affected employees and others involved in the sourcing competition'was an afterthought a year ago when the Air Force held an A-76 competition between industry and employee bidders at Lackland.

The results of that competition have been thrown out and the base is operating as it did before the competition. But the Air Force will try again. And Lackland won't be alone'53 A-76 studies are currently underway throughout the Air Force.

The objective at Lackland was to choose an organization to run 18 of the base's functions, including IT, logistics, civil engineering, communications services and transportation.

The contract was initially awarded to an industry team of contractors calling itself Lackland 21st Century Services Consolidated.

But a series of protests and reversals ensued.

The contract award was reversed by an independent administrative appeal authority and handed to a group of employees based at Lackland and the adjacent Kelly Air Force Base. Kelly has been closed by the Air Force, although the runway remained open, and the outsourced work included the successful switch of employees from Kelly to Lackland.

Then the Air Force was forced to flip-flop again when the courts ruled in favor of the contractors. By then, the dispute had caught the eye of the Texas congressional delegation and the Defense Department Inspector General.

IG: Start over

Last September, the IG's report said the Air Force had made so many mistakes in the competition that the branch should throw out the results and start over.

The IG found the Air Force had used inexperienced staff to evaluate bids and that they made basic miscalculations. The Air Force also drew the lash for allowing officers to make significant changes to a bid proposal by government workers that raised the price of the workers' bid.

Service officials heeded the IG's stern advice, scrapping the competition results. Next fall, the Air Education and Training Command will begin another study for Lackland'from scratch.

But don't hold your breath. Officials expect to have the competition awarded within four years.

Why would it succeed this time? The big change will be in how the new competition is conducted, said Col. John Vrba, chief of competitive sourcing and privatization under the Air Force's director of Manpower and Organization.

'People worked hard and meant well, but we did have some problems with Lackland,' said Kathleen Miller, staff director in the Air Force Program Executive Office for services. 'We had issues with lack of experience and lack of proper training.'

For instance, Miller said, Air Force officials discovered that some employees who served as independent review officials were doing an A-76 competition for the first time.

There were also problems with how Lackland employees interpreted the requirements document, she said. This document typically identifies the work that needs to be done and helps both the government and the contractor determine how to size their bid proposals.

'The problem with the Lackland requirements was there was language used that could be interpreted differently by different people reading it'primarily government personnel compared to contract personnel,' said Vrba. 'This included some workload data that was expressed in man-hours instead of what end product was needed. There was also a misunderstanding of material inventory levels being provided or expected to be maintained.'

With the next competition, the requirements will be more performance-based than they were last year, Vrba said. This is a shift happening in the Air Force and throughout all of DOD, he added.

'We're getting out of the business of telling people how to do something instead of what we need them to do,' Vrba said. 'That means we are concentrating more on clearly identifying what needs to be accomplished instead of describing how it should be accomplished.'

The Air Force is making another change as well. Larger A-76 competitions such as Lackland's will now be closely supervised by the secretary of the Air Force. The step-by-step reviews will get much more scrutiny and attention, Miller said. A little more than 1,000 of the potentially affected Lackland employees are Air Force civilians; the remaining 439 are military.

Also, Vrba said, top managers of the job functions slated for outsourcing will continue to play a large role in the competitions, as will an Air Force auditor.

Meanwhile, Computer Sciences Corp., one of three vendors who made up Lackland 21st Century, is getting out of the A-76 competition at Lackland altogether. The other two vendors are Del-Jen Inc. of Rolling Hills Estates, Calif., and Tecom Inc. of Austin, Texas.

'CSC has no intention of participating in a re-competition for this program under the A-76 process as it was applied in the original procurement,' a company memorandum said.

Employee morale

Several Lackland employees expressed doubt the A-76 process would show better results on the next go-around. They think the process was wrong for Lackland's employees in the first place.

'It's been a roller-coaster ride because people don't know whether they'll have a job,' said Eloise Stripling, who teaches English at the Defense Language Institute on the base. Stripling is involved in the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees. Her job was not targeted for outsourcing, she said.

'They are all scared,' Stripling said.

Scared isn't the right word to describe James Bynum's feeling. Mad is more like it.

Bynum has worked for 23 years as a civil engineer at Lackland's Wilford Hall Medical Center and his job was on the chopping block. Bynum called the process political and said it would be easier, and less expensive, if the Air Force would just reduce the civilian work force at Lackland without the costly studies and competitions.

Instead, the competitions force the service to pay for consultants and a cache of experts, selected without employee input, Bynum said. Their roles are to assist the government workers in preparing its bid.

'I see the whole procedure being flawed,' Bynum said. 'We didn't have control. This thing is being totally undermined by big money and politics, basically.'

Bynum said contractors can select their own experts and have plenty of money to throw around.

He said it would be simpler to reduce the work force, which Bynum concedes has grown out of hand with the onslaught of temporary help the Air Force hired and continues to keep on months after the Lackland verdict.

Bynum said the employees were hired after too many employees left the government when the study was first announced.

'It's a part of life. Corporations reduce force because they are not making enough profits,' Bynum said. 'We've got way too many employees for what we do. We're just a bloated big old whale.'

Senior Air Force officials still want the jobs performed, but in the most cost-efficient way, regardless of whether civilians or contractors are performing the work.

'One of the basic tenets of the federal government was we don't want our military tied up doing functions that are not necessarily government requirements,' Vrba said. 'We still need civil engineers, but when we can get those performed by an MEO (most efficient organization) or a contractor, it allows us to use the military as the military.'

Vrba said the Air Force remains committed to the A-76 process, but acknowledges that changes were desperately needed. Air Force officials took part in the OMB Commercial Activities Panel that reviewed the process. This comes just in time for the next study at Lackland, he said.

'The concept is still sound, but we didn't have the background expertise at the time and now we have developed it, based on the lessons learned from these tough failures,' Vrba said.

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