WASHINGTON - Rapid turnover and a shortage of experienced U.S. staff in Iraq managing billions of dollars of contracts is wreaking havoc on a rebuilding plan already slowed down by violence.
Companies working in Iraq, auditors and the U.S. government office running the $18.4 billion U.S. rebuilding program all say contracting staff shortages in Baghdad are a problem as overworked employees struggle to oversee and award contracts in a stressful, hostile environment.
"The big elephant in the room is we don't have enough procurement staff (in Iraq)," said Professor Steven Schooner, a procurement specialist at George Washington University.
U.S. government audits released on Wednesday by the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction pointed repeatedly to the high turnover rate and quick rotations of contracting staff as a contributing factor to stalling the U.S. rebuilding plan.
Auditors are planning an audit to see whether U.S. recruitment and deployment processes for staff supporting Iraq reconstruction is effective.
In one instance, a contract had to be re-bid because the contracting officer left Baghdad and bids could only be retrieved from his e-mail account. When his successor arrived, the e-mail account where bids were placed could not be accessed due to Privacy Act reasons, said auditors.
In addition, documents were constantly getting lost and as staff moved on from such a dangerous environment they often did not leave detailed instructions for their successors, who could arrive weeks later because of problems getting visas.
"There was no transition process or procedure in place to ensure that departing personnel transitioned workload to successor personnel. As a result, this prevented the effective continuity of contract administration when each tour of duty expired," said the audit.
Schooner said one of the best examples of a lack of oversight was at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad, where contractors have been implicated in the abuse scandal.
"There was no supervision at all for these contractors," said Schooner. A congressional report released last week pointed to this lack of oversight as a problem at the prison.
Many of the contracting staff in Iraq are drawn from the military, particularly the Air Force, which typically has had a four-month rotation, said Project and Contracting Office spokesman Major Tom Leonard.
The PCO is responsible for managing most of the $18.4 billion appropriated by Congress for Iraq reconstruction and is authorized to have 69 contracting officers. By the end of last month, only 41 were on board.
Leonard said his office did the best it could to attract employees to such a hostile environment and to have a two-week overlap time when staff rotated out.
"Does that (overlap time) happen in all cases? No it doesn't. Someone may be delayed in transit due to unforeseen circumstances. We are in a dynamic, hostile, changing environment," he said.
Several companies working on U.S.-funded projects in Iraq, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained of a lack of continuity and confusion from staff turnover.
"Just as you are getting used to one contracting officer, he leaves and another comes in with different ideas and you have to change gears again," said one contractor who has worked in Iraq for two years doing hundreds of millions of dollars of work for the U.S. government.
"This lack of institutional memory has slowed us down," said another.
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