An eight-month assignment as chief of contracting in Kandahar yields an abundance of lessons learned.
by Maj. Michael Z. Keathley
The commander’s intent for U.S. Army Expeditionary Contracting Command – Afghanistan—the clear, concise expression of what the force must do and the conditions it must establish to accomplish the mission while allowing subordinates the greatest possible freedom of action—directs Soldiers and civilians to “stay left of bang,” “exploit the data” and “leave lasting footprints.”
These three axioms have worked well to produce successful contracting operations. But between the seemingly simple principles and the successes is a universe of best practices based on lessons learned in contracting environments that are anything but simple. As the ever eloquent Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
As the chief of contracting at Regional Contracting Office – South (RCO-S) at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, from November 2016 to July 2017, I had the opportunity to see these three directives in action, to apply them in the operation of RCO-S and, along the way, to survive the punches and to learn a few lessons about expeditionary contracting operations.
The chief of contracting at RCO-S is responsible for the contract administration of the Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) task order for southern Afghanistan. LOGCAP, dating to 2007, is the primary contract vehicle for base life-support services—everyday services such as electricity, waste management and dining facility operations—at all enduring and contingency bases in theater. RCO-S provided support and oversight of about $300 million worth of contracts in FY16. Like all other U.S. Army organizations, RCO-S had a mission statement. Ours was simple: “provide professional contracting support, on time, to the warfighter.”
RCO-S, responsible for three locations supporting nearly 8,000 Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, Marines and civilians, consisted of me, my noncommissioned officer in charge, a civilian administrative contracting officer (ACO) and three quality assurance representatives (QARs). The three locations were reachable only by helicopter and required significant prior planning and coordination to schedule visits. To support the contingency contract administration services mission, I and one civilian held ACO warrants that gave us authority to direct the LOGCAP contractor. All RCO-S personnel were located at Kandahar Airfield, save one QAR who lived at one of our outlying bases.
RCO-S has been supporting contracting operations in southern Afghanistan for more than a decade, and it has seen its personnel turn over every six months to a year. My assessment of its operation when I arrived was overwhelmingly positive, but one of my intentions was to leave it better than I found it. Our day-to-day challenge was to apply the commander’s intent to accomplish our contracting mission. Managing a life-support contract serving so many people across such a large footprint is complex, to say the least. Doing so with simple guidance was fundamental to our success.
USING CONTRACTOR OVERSIGHT TO AVOID THE BANG
This axiom means, essentially, to identify and mitigate issues or risks before they became problems, i.e., be proactive versus reactive. We accomplished this through relentless oversight of the contractor.
The performance work statement (PWS) for the LOGCAP contract in the south contained 75 “lines,” or services to be performed. For example, one line was waste management. The contractor was expected to execute that service in a particular way, on a particular schedule, using particular manuals and instructions, all detailed in the PWS. This “parent” service encompassed “child” services: emptying dumpsters, servicing portable toilets, operating a landfill, etc. Each service was assigned a risk rating of high, medium or low. (See Figure 1)
The services with a “high” risk rating were deemed to have the potential to hurt the warfighter’s readiness or even cause actual harm if not executed correctly. For example, food service operations was a high-risk service. Food service must be done correctly, without fail, guaranteeing that the contractor provided patrons with the nutrition they needed, served food properly and maintained a prescribed degree of cleanliness. On the opposite end of the spectrum, morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) services were assigned a low risk. The warfighter’s readiness was unlikely to suffer if an MWR building did not fully function.
To ensure that the contractor upheld its end of the contract and avoided service disruptions, my QARs conducted periodic audits of performance lines. An audit was as simple as an on-the-spot observation or as detailed as reviewing the contractor’s execution of a task. My QARs conducted an average of more than 100 audits each month on most PWS lines for the LOGCAP task order, a significant increase compared with the practices of previous staffs. Our goal was to audit all high- and medium-risk services each month, including all parent and child services. That schedule gave my team frequent opportunities to witness contractor performance and to identify opportunities to mitigate perceived or possible issues.
On several occasions, particularly in dining facilities, my QARs and I made on-the-spot corrections relating to cleanliness, waste management and food preparation. For instance, we noticed that one of the dining facilities was temporarily storing food waste immediately outside the dining facility, violating a regulation that trash was to be kept at least 250 feet from the building at all times. Food waste brings insects, rats and other vermin, all unacceptable visitors in a dining facility. A quick discussion with the dining facility manager resolved the issue, which was minor but could have grown into a bigger problem if not addressed.
My office was allotted only three QARs, so we relied heavily on contracting officer’s representatives (CORs) to perform surveillance of the contractor. QARs are specially trained on how to read and interpret a PWS and are very familiar with the associated technical manuals the contractor is contractually bound to follow. A QAR is also well-versed in the basics of contracting—what is expected of the contractor as well as the government. My QARs kept the pulse of the contractor with regard to performance across the breadth of the LOGCAP contract, but I had only three of them, and they couldn’t be everywhere, all the time. By contrast, 33 CORs were available, on average, throughout our three locations; however, the execution of their COR duties was often secondary to their primary job.
The CORs monitored all performance lines and recorded their findings monthly in the COR Tool (CORT). CORT is an online database for collecting the numerous COR reports submitted each month, simple digital files answering pertinent questions on contractor performance. This database is accessible to the CORs and all contracting officers assigned to a given contract. A monthly requirement for the ACOs at RCO-S was to review these forms to ensure their validity and accuracy and accept them into CORT. This review, I found, was essential as some CORs submitted hurried work, much of which was unhelpful from a contracting perspective.
My team and I quickly discovered that all the CORs had other jobs to do. For example, some CORs were infantry platoon leaders, responsible for planning and executing combat patrols almost daily. Such an operations tempo is not conducive to effective surveillance of contractors. It became apparent that each organization slated to deploy should determine what its COR requirement will be and identify individuals likely to have the most time to devote to that task. Ample foresight benefits both the unit supplying the CORs and the contracting office.
CORs in the LOGCAP environment are invaluable to the ACO. However, it was difficult to monitor all 33 of them closely. On more than one occasion, one of our CORs issued direction to the contractor, something they do not have the authority to do. In each instance, I required retraining for the COR. In retrospect, to stay left of bang, I think it would’ve been more beneficial for me to conduct that training personally. I also should’ve mandated that every COR training session contain my personal instruction regarding the limits of their authority and the potential ramifications of violating them.
COR training must explain in great detail how the contractor can misinterpret a COR’s opinion as an official government request. For example, if a COR mentions to the contractor, “The trash pickup for this site needs to be changed to one hour later,” the contractor could interpret that as direction from the government. Only a contracting officer can make such a change, so it’s important that CORs choose their words carefully when talking to the contractor.
CORT posed another time-consuming challenge for the RCO-S team. The tool is not an intuitive one, which presents problems when warfighter units arrive in theater. There is a rather steep learning curve in gaining access to the system, negotiating the site and uploading reports. Without fail, units and civilians slated to deploy should train the people who will be serving as CORs before they leave the United States, so that the CORs can hit the ground running and use the tool effectively in theater.
VALIDATING DETAILS BIG AND SMALL
We constantly received data from the contractor indicating work it had completed and other performance markers. “Exploiting” this data consisted of delving into the finite details to validate it in an effort to prevent the contractor from painting a one-sided picture. This is not to suggest that the contractor was known to submit fraudulent data. Rather, it was important that the RCO-S team, as the administering office, be vigilant to ensure that what the contractor was providing was accurate.
Most of the data collected by the LOGCAP contractor was published daily, weekly and monthly on Contract Data Requirements Lists from the contractor’s contracts management division. For example, the contractor provided my office a daily water production report that listed how much non-potable and potable water was on hand, produced and issued. (The contractor is required to maintain a certain number of days’ worth of water supply.) Once a month, I tasked my QARs to go to the water production site while the contractor recorded the daily numbers, to observe how it was done. This task served two purposes: Besides making sure the contractor was reporting water production data accurately, it demonstrated to the contractor that its data was being monitored and validated. Service orders, work orders, fuel issuance and billeting management were other areas where we visited work sites to ensure that the contractor was reporting data accurately.
Something I could have done better to exploit data was arming myself with appropriate manuals or regulations. I routinely made unannounced observations, but rarely did so with the guidance of an appropriate supporting manual. In many parts of the LOGCAP PWS, for example, the requirement would be simply that “the contractor will conduct food service operations in accordance with Technical Bulletin, Medical (TB MED) 530, Tri-Service Food Code.” This supporting publication is over 300 pages long and discusses everything from the maximum lead content acceptable in food to the capacity of the kitchen drainage system.
In retrospect, at least weekly I should have found a specific requirement in a referenced manual, regulation or publication and checked the contractor’s compliance. This wouldn’t have been to “catch” the contractor in the wrong but simply to enforce the requirements. This also would have made it crystal clear that the government was enforcing compliance not only with the large items in the PWS, but the minutiae as well.
LEAVING A BETTER SYSTEM
Before I entered the contracting career field, I served in the maneuver community as an armor officer in the 3rd Infantry Division and the 1st Cavalry Division. In that community, “leave lasting footprints” meant “constantly improve your battle position.” Looking at the concept from a contracting perspective, I considered it an edict to make systems and processes better than I found them, to improve the contracting support that each subsequent RCO chief can provide the warfighter.
Management of CORs is one area I focused on improving. At RCO-S, we managed our active CORs through face-to-face interaction and by using a few tools we created. The first tool was our COR tracker: a spreadsheet containing COR names, locations, email addresses, phone numbers, the date they were appointed as a COR and, most important, the number of days remaining until their redeployment back to their home station. This information gave us everything we needed to manage each person and to ensure that we identified their replacements before they departed theater.
Another tool in our COR management was our audit tracker. Established at RCO-S long before I arrived, it laid out all the PWS lines of the LOGCAP contract and provided the name of the COR assigned to each. It also displayed the risk rating for each PWS line, which drove the frequency of audit. The tracker also listed what audits were due for which PWS line for each month, and provided a column to indicate if the audit had been completed as well as a column for pertinent comments. These tools gave us the necessary awareness of our CORs’ status and the status of their reports. (See Figure 2)
As I write this, my RCO-S replacement and his team are carrying on with the timely contract support the warfighters in Afghanistan have grown accustomed to.
My advice to anyone going to Afghanistan as part of this support is to ask themselves these three questions once a day: What am I doing to stay left of bang? How am I exploiting the data the contractor is giving me? How am I leaving lasting footprints, and making systems and processes better for those who come after me? If all else fails, look to the contracting officers, contracting specialists and other contracting professionals to your left and right. They possess a wealth of historical know-how.
The U.S. has been in Afghanistan for 16 years now, and all the while we’ve been conducting contracting support. There isn’t a single coalition service member who isn’t supported by a contract in some capacity, be it the food he eats or the electricity she uses. While the commander’s intent may change from time to time, the three simple axioms executed by the motivated, professional and knowledgeable personnel of RCO-S and U.S. Army Contracting Command have been integral to maintaining that support, whether we were aware of it or not.
For more information, contact the author at Michael.firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information about Army Contracting Command, Expeditionary Contracting Command – Afghanistan’s parent command, go to http://acc.army.mil/about/.
MAJ. MICHAEL Z. KEATHLEY is the executive officer of the 922nd Contracting Battalion at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He holds an MBA in acquisitions and contract management from the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School and a bachelor of liberal arts in criminal justice from Northwestern State University. He is Level II certified in contracting.
This article is published in the January – March 2018 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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