Accountable Strategies blog

A blog about accountability issues in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors

Are we letting our government watchdogs become toothless hounds?

Posted by David Kassel on August 4, 2008

Continual downsizing in the federal government since the 1990s may have saved us money in federal salaries, but it has apparently also impaired our ability to track the taxpayer dollars feeding our military contractors.

Consider a July 2008 Government Accountability Office report about another key government watchdog agency, the Defense Contract Audit Agency , which has failed to do its job properly in auditing Defense Department contracts, apparently partly due to downsizing.  According to the detailed GAO report, downsizing has affected not only the DOD’s ability to manage its own growing universe of contractors, but audit staffing within the DCAA itself has been sharply cut in recent years. 

In its report to key members of Congress, the GAO noted that Department of Defense contract management continues to be vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement.  The report stated that downsizing of DOD contract oversight staff in the 1990s coupled with hundreds of billions of dollars in increased contract spending since 2000 “has exacerbated the risks associated with DOD contract management.”

The DCAA has a critical oversight mission regarding DOD contracting.  Despite that, auditing staff at DCAA dropped from almost 6,000 in 1989 to 3,500 in 2007, according to the GAO.  That is a 42 percent decline.   DCAA’s 3,500 auditors annually perform about 40,000 audits of approximately 10,000 contractors.

In one office, two DCAA supervisors, who approved and signed 62 of 113 audit reports, said they did not always have time to review audit working papers.  In 18 of those 62 cases, they assigned trainees  to complex forward pricing audits as their first assignments.  

DCAA contract audits are intended to be a key control to help assure that prices paid by the government for needed goods and services are fair and reasonable and that contractors are charging the government in accordance with applicable laws, regulations, and contract terms.   In performing its audits, DCAA states that it follows generally accepted government auditing standards (GAGAS).

GAO opened its investigation after receiving hotline complaints that DCAA was failing to comply with GAGAS on 14 agency audits.  The GAO found that in an audit involving a major areospace company, DCAA management threatened the senior auditor with personnel action if he did not delete findings from the report.  In addition, the management made an up-front agreement with the contractor to limit the scope of work and basis for the audit opinion. 

In another case involving a contractor that produces and supports military satellite sytems, a draft audit report identified six significant deficiencies, one of which led the contactor to overbill the government by $246,000 and another which may have led to $3.5 million in overbillings.  According to the GAO report, two auditors who wrote the draft report were replaced by other auditors who dropped the findings and changed the draft audit opinion from “inadequate,” to “adequate.”  In addition, DCAA managers took actions against staff at two locations, attempting to intimidate auditors, prevent them from speaking with investigators, and creating a generally abusive work environment.  Downsizing alone may not fully explain these issues at DCAA, but it may have been a necessary precondition for them.

The sad fact is that while the Bush adminstration may have hastened the downsizing process, it isn’t solely responsible for it.  One comment on the the Project on Government Oversight blog noted that much of the DOD’s contract management workforce downsizing took place during the Clinton Administration.  In a compelling paper in 2005, Larry Terry at the University of Texas at Dallas  linked government downsizing to the New Public Management (NPM)–a global public-sector reform movement that was embraced by the Clinton administration and implemented by then Vice President Al Gore.  The NPM’s zeal for downsizing was matched only by its enthusiasm for privatization and deregulation.  Terry argued that:

…NPM philosophy and practices have contributed to an increasingly hollow state with thinning administrative institutions.  …thin administrative institutions are fragile.  Fragile institutions lack the integrity and, in turn, the capacity to effectively serve the public good.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that we’ve now arrived at a state of affairs in which we can no longer adequately control the contractors who are increasingly running our government.

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