By Robert Brodsky – GovExec.com – March 12, 2010
The additional workload associated with administering billions of dollars in stimulus funds has put a strain on the federal government’s contracts and grants workforce, according to new findings the Commerce Department’s inspector general released on Friday.
Although agencies are prioritizing Recovery Act work and, in many instances, hiring more staff or realigning tasks, the increased workload has exacted a price on departmental operations, the IG found.
“The awarding of contracts and grants is being delayed as is other work; employees are working overtime; and the oversight and monitoring of awards — especially non-Recovery Act contracts and grants — are expected to decline, as many agencies attempt to implement Recovery Act requirements while carrying out their ongoing programs and operations,” according to the report, which was mandated by the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
At the request of the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, the IG surveyed 29 federal agencies receiving stimulus funds to gauge whether there are enough qualified and well-trained acquisition and grant personnel overseeing stimulus funds. Twenty six responded, including officials from 140 divisions and offices.
Agencies receiving stimulus funds calculated that from April 1 through June 30, 2009, they assigned more than 22,000 employees — just over 20 percent of their contracting and grants workforce — to Recovery Act contracts and grants. Those projects resulted in more than 3.7 million hours of work during this period, the IG report said.
Agencies projected that between July 2009 and June 2010, their contracting and grants staff would spend more than 17.5 million hours on stimulus projects — or the work of nearly 8,600 full-time equivalent employees. Recovery Act staffing is expected to increase to nearly 25,000 by June, the report said.
Despite the added help, officials report they still are overwhelmed with responsibilities. More than 40 percent of respondents at large agencies said their Recovery Act staffing was inadequate. Another 45 percent said their agencies had enough employees to administer Recovery funds but the workload affected non-Recovery Act projects. The remaining 14 percent reported their staffing was fine and the work had minimal impact on other operations.
Nearly one-fourth of officials at smaller agencies reported their staffing levels were sufficient, although more than half said stimulus work was cascading into non-Recovery tasks.
“Recovery Act funding has substantially increased the workload of most agencies receiving these funds, as agencies were expected to make additional awards as quickly as possible while adhering to regulations and procedures that would ensure a fair and competitive process,” the report said.
The workforce challenges appear dire among officials administering grants, which represent a significantly higher portion of Recovery spending than contracts. Officials told the IG that unrelated tasks are being delayed, including the performance of routine grants management, reviewing applications in discretionary grants competitions and resolving audit findings.
Members of the acquisition workforce also acknowledged delays in awarding non-Recovery Act contracts.
“Respondents indicated that acquisition delays will range from longer lead times in initiating awards and not completing projects on time, to rescheduling projects or even postponing them indefinitely,” the report said. “Additionally, several respondents reported that timely obligation of all fiscal year funds, policy development and other programmatic initiatives, along with training, might not be completed over the next year.”
Those problems could be just the beginning. Several respondents said without additional resources, their staffs will not be able to devote enough attention to processing modifications, updating contract management plans, monitoring contractor systems or tracking deliverables for their nonstimulus contracts.
Acquisition personnel also expressed concern about the increased costs of meeting Recovery Act requirements, including overtime, credit hours and compensatory time. Others noted. “The toll that prolonged extended hours can have on employees, citing burnout, and decreased morale and productivity.”
In addition, the report found gaps in the training and certification of the acquisition workforce. While nearly all contracting officers assigned to Recovery Act acquisitions are certified, only 75 percent of civilian contracting officer technical representatives/contracting officer representatives have the necessary certification. The Defense Department has not established certification standards for COTRs/CORs.
The grants workforce, meanwhile, has no governmentwide qualification or training requirements, although a handful of agency-specific requirements exist. The IG recommended agencies establish standard qualifications and training requirements, similar to those in the acquisition workforce, for the grants community.
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