When the ground first shook beneath Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 12, 2010, it was to be one of the most devastating catastrophes in history. The 7.0-magnitude earthquake leveled parts of the Haitian capital, and with it came a death toll exceeding 200,000 – with the total number probably never to be known.
Almost immediately, the Army Contracting Command (ACC) jumped into motion. It was destined to be one of the most memorable moments of the year for ACC. But as the year progressed, it became just one of many accomplishments that precedes the command’s next chapter: a new headquarters building and a new location to better meet the needs of troops and individuals around the world.
“When you look at Haiti, we had boots on the ground within 48 hours; we were able to put contracts in place that were needed,” said Dr. Carol Lowman, deputy director of ACC. “We had a reachback capability to the states … because what we’ve learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, we were able to use when we went to Haiti.
“There’s no need necessarily to write all of these contracts right there in the theater,” she said. “You can send a requirement back, have it awarded in the states.”
And the lessons learned keep coming.
Jeffrey Parsons, executive director of ACC, noted that the improvements from the Haiti operation were almost immediate.
“What we learned is that it’s not just having the contracting personnel on the ground; you need some support people too – people who understand policy, legal representation [and] quality assurance personnel,” he said. “In a relatively short time, not only did we have contingency contracting personnel on the ground, but we also had the support element; those support skills that we needed to make that a successful operation.”
When ACC leadership arrived in Haiti, the Joint Task Force-Haiti leadership turned to the Army to lead the joint contracting mission in Haiti because of ACC’s command and control structure and ability to respond as quickly as it did.
Parsons also agreed with Lowman regarding reachback. As a result of that ability, much of the contracting was executed through support personnel back in the United States providing the contracting needs from contracting offices in Miami as well as ACC support from Rock Island, Ill.
“We are demonstrating enterprise capability of providing contracting support to an expeditionary operation – not necessarily by people just on the ground but by this extensive network that we have throughout the command,” Parsons said.
This proved crucial, as the conditions in Haiti were less than favorable. Portable satellite communications provided some help, but Parsons said it wasn’t enough to complete all of the contracting tasks necessary on the ground at the disaster site.
Parsons said the ACC was better prepared and better at executing such a mission than they had been before, and it’s just the beginning of an even more robust contracting capability that began taking shape last year and serves as a cornerstone for other big accomplishments for the ACC in 2010.
Haiti, in fact, might have just put an exclamation point on other accomplishments for the year. According to Parsons, one of the significant accomplishments was reaching full operational capability for ACC headquarters and the Expeditionary Contracting Command (ECC) headquarters. ACC was provisionally established in March 2008, formally recognized in October 2008, and then declared full operational capability in October of 2009.
It’s a relatively short time for such a transition.
“As a result of that, [we] actually start[ed] putting into place the processes that we would use as a two-star command to operate this worldwide contracting capability that was so vital to the support of the Army,” Parsons said.
But that wasn’t all. While all this was happening, the Army decided the future ACC and ECC home should be located at Redstone Arsenal, Ala. It posed another challenge for ACC: moving the ACC and ECC headquarters, with more than 300 positions, by August 2011.
“The Army eventually wants to see a two-star general officer sitting in here, not a two-star equivalent SES [Senior Executive Service], and so I’ve always made it clear my intent is to work myself out of a job,” Parsons said. “Whether that happens before the move is completed or after the move is completed, certainly I’ll stick with the command up until the time we get a two-star approved in place.”
Already with two new one-star commanders that have extensive contracting backgrounds at the ECC and at the Mission and Installation Contracting Command, Parsons said the entire organization is on a path of meeting not only the intent, but the very specific recommendations of a report from the Commission on Army Acquisition and Program Management in Expeditionary Operations, also known as the Gansler Report.
Headed by Jacques Gansler, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, the commission offered a “blunt and comprehensive assessment” of the Army’s contracting and acquisition practices. The independent commission submitted a report to then-Secretary of the Army Pete Geren on Nov. 1, 2007, that cited some contracting shortcomings.
The report outlined recommendations on how to reorganize Army contracting and “how to infuse more military with the requisite contracting skills to support expeditionary operations,” Parsons added.
“We have nearly 400 military, I believe, now in the Expeditionary Contracting Command that are learning to be – or already are – contingency contracting officers,” Parsons said. “All of those individuals are receiving their day-to-day training and their day-to-day expertise at duty locations throughout the command.”
Another step in this overall process is working to establish and standardize business practices across the command. At the cornerstone is the ACC “Desk Book.”
“Part of this goal is, if you’re a contracting officer or a contracting specialist and you work in Warren, Mich., and you want to move to a different part of the command, at Redstone Arsenal, or if you want to go to Fort Hood, Texas, there shouldn’t be too much difference [between] the business practices,” Parsons said.
The Desk Book is considered a living, collaborative document to standardize these processes across the board and serve as a go-to tool for individuals in the command to ensure their training and execution matches – and evolves with – the greatest needs of the command and those the command serves.
Training the Future Today
According to Parsons, the hiring of contracting interns (entry-level) personnel continued over the past year, with nearly 800 new employees hired in the last two years.
“Again, in meeting the intent of not only the Gansler Commission, but now the [Office of the Secretary of Defense’s] initiative to grow the acquisition work force, we’ve done a lot of new hiring,” he said. “The challenge associated with that is … the raw experience level has dropped because of all the new people.”
The challenge, Parsons said, is how to get them trained and raise their experience level in a short amount of time, so that they become “journeyman-level” contracting specialists and contracting officers as fast as possible. In addition to hiring interns, the command is also searching for mid-level and senior-level contracting professionals.
A powerful tool in the recruitment effort is the award-winning www.armyhire.com Web site, which he said describes ACC’s mission and available job opportunities. Coupled with social networking efforts with sites like Linkedin.com, ACC is exploiting all types of media to tell its story and reach out to potential employees.
Parsons said ACC has a concept plan in staffing: asking the Department of the Army for an additional 600 individuals who would focus solely on post-award contract management.
According to Parsons, the Government Accountability Office, the Defense Department inspector general, and the Army Audit Agency all have identified post-award contract shortcomings.
“It was quite a challenge for us to convince the people at the Pentagon that this was a must-do thing,” Parsons said. “[It was a] major accomplishment this past year … getting the Department of the Army to recognize and to include in the POM [Program Objective Memorandum] these additional positions that we will dedicate to post-award contract management.”
ACC’s emphasis has also been on recruiting and nurturing officer and noncommissioned officer (NCO) contracting professionals in the military occupational specialty referred to as “51 Charlie.” According to Parsons, it’s a number that’s almost doubled in a year, particularly in the ECC.
“For the ECC side, we’ve established our training section and the ECC headquarters,” said Command Sgt. Maj. John L. Murray, ECC command sergeant major. “Before the training section was stood up, there was no formalized way for NCOs to go to training. Everyone was on their own trying to get to training. We now have an order of merit list and procedures that get NCOs to training at the right time and place.”
Now that process is formalized with established policies and procedures so ACC can track the institutional training.
Additional training last year included Operation Bold Impact, where Soldiers preparing to deploy went through warrior training and certification exercises at Fort Riley, Kan. What made this stand out, according to Murray, was not only an emphasis on technical skills, but that the exercise included “lanes training” with first aid and even some battle drills.
He said it paid off, particularly during the Haiti mission.
“Usually we’re coming at the last minute, and we need this,” he said. “We were in there at the beginning, ready and asking them, ‘Hey, what are your requirements? We’re ready to execute.’”
But Parsons emphasized that most of these officers are still new to the acquisition career field and are new to contracting, so the challenge with the 51 Charlies and civilian interns is to get them trained quickly and get them involved in future contingency operations.
Many, he said, come from a supply background, but today people are coming from a variety of Army branches.
“What the real challenge is … is that you can’t just send somebody to a contracting course and declare them to be an expert; you learn how to do this craft – this art – by doing, and so it’s not just going to school, and it’s not going to an eight-week simulator course to learn how to drive a tank,” Parsons said. “That’s why we send these individuals throughout the command to be duty assigned with contracting officers that are doing day-to-day [missions].”
A lot of the success in the future will be based not only on participating in training on occasion, but in recognizing that training is an integral part of the overall mission to bring the less experienced contractors up to speed.
“Part of your day-to-day mission [as a] contracting specialist or contracting officer is to help train and transfer your knowledge to these 51 Charlies, so that they can be the ones that deploy and execute this contracting business in expeditionary operations,” Parsons said. “It was the civilian contracting officer that put his arm around me and said, “OK Jeff, I’m going to teach you how to do contracting.”
He emphasized that the complexities of contracting, the frequent changes in regulations and practices, require a hands-on approach to grasp.
“It’s just like being an apprentice to a carpenter or a plumber; you work under the tutelage of a master craftsman,” Parsons said. “There are all kinds of programs out there – apprentice programs for the different trades and the different crafts – well, that’s the same kind of concept that we’ve got in contracting.”
This article was first published in U.S. Army Materiel Command: 2010-2011 Edition.