Acquisition, in the form of contracting, is vital to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE). Without the ability to purchase services and supplies from contractors large and small, USACE simply could not perform its missions.
Dedicated to critical engineering services to support both the warfighter and the American public, the 37,000 civilians and Soldiers who make up USACE are thought of primarily as engineers. However, USACE personnel represent a wide range of engineering, scientific, and business specialties, including acquisition.
More than 1,300 members of the command’s workforce are directly involved in contracting, responsible for the purchase and oversight of $30 billion worth of contracting per year. Stuart Hazlett is USACE’s top contracting professional. As the USACE director of contracting, he is keenly aware of the importance of contract labor to USACE and the immense quantity of services and goods the command purchases.
“We buy a very wide range of commodities,” Hazlett said. “The term ‘commodities’ encompasses all of the supplies and services we acquire. The Corps, by law and regulation, does predominantly architecture, engineering, and construction. Those types of commodities represent about 73 percent of everything we buy. We also support R&D [research and development] out of our Engineer Research and Development Center [ERDC] and our Geospatial Center [USACE Army Geospatial Center]. We acquire facilities-related services that will help us perform sustainment, restoration, and modernization of military installations and other structures. The Corps Civil Works mission, historically related to federal river and harbor improvements, now encompasses a broad range of water-related missions to include flood damage reduction, shore and hurricane protection, hydropower, recreation, water supply, and wetland restoration.”
“Acquisition is a life cycle value proposition provided by USACE for our customers,” Hazlett added. USACE engineers write requirements for a given project that include construction and design specifications and other obligations. Then the command ensures proper financing is in place before the contract is solicited, evaluated, and awarded.
“We establish and provide oversight of the terms and conditions of a quality business deal,” Hazlett explained. “Once we have awarded a construction or A-E [architect-engineer] contract, we transition to a post-award team led by technical personnel who have functional expertise in design and construction and experience in contract administration. The teams also include a contracting officer and a specialist who support the technical staff and ensure full compliance with applicable contracting policy and regulations.”
Striking a “quality business deal” is a chief priority in USACE contracting efforts. Over the first decade of the 21st century, USACE experienced a historically high operational tempo. Two ongoing conflicts (Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom), the latest round of BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure, 2005), responding to natural disasters, and the institution of the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in 2009 led to a heavy workload for USACE. Keeping pace with the work generated by these efforts in addition to USACE’s normal civil works and military duties often resulted in less-than-efficient business practices. Contracting took some policy shortcuts in order to meet customer expectations on aggressive project schedules.
“We were working at such a high tempo that we took many shortcuts to keep pace,” Hazlett said. “Now, as the funding we have decreases and work slows down, we have the time to ensure we are in total compliance with all acquisition policies. We’re not going to be so time-driven. We’ll have the fortitude to be quality- and cost-driven.”
Putting USACE contracting on a better business footing begins with choosing the right kind of contracting vehicles, said Hazlett, and providing better oversight post-contract award to ensure contractors deliver the quality they promise.
“One of our main priorities is emphasizing quality business deals on behalf of our customers and taxpayers. That’s very important to us. As funding is shrinking from the Corps’ budget, our needs are still there. Even after a best-value selection, we want to execute innovative contract types that will motivate a contractor to give their best effort for the taxpayers’ dollars.”
Hazlett stressed that 86 percent of the contracting USACE acquires is solicited via full and open competition. Only 14 percent of USACE contracting is other than full and open competition.
“We will either do best-value where there’s a trade-off between technical capability and price or we may accept the lowest price/technically acceptable offer,” he said. “Oftentimes, we may not go that route. We may do a competitive acquisition where we clearly know what the specification is and we evaluate contractors based on whether they’re responsive to the needs of the government. What’s the best price and deal for the taxpayer?”
USACE is also putting quality assurance surveillance plans in place and emphasizing their use for oversight, said Hazlett.
“We’re working hard to make sure we have tools in post-contract award such as contract administration to ensure that the contractor who won the best-value award is living up to the terms of that award. So we are working to improve our project administration and surveillance utilizing from our project managers and engineers to ensure the contractor is living up to their promises. If not, we are seeking consideration from the contractor.”