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Thursday, May 22, 2014

Suspension mounts

The federal GAO (Government Accountability Office) has this month released a new report revealing a marked attempt by US government agencies to police the ranks of contractors and improve contractor responsibility standards.

The report, number GAO-14-513, is entitled FEDERAL CONTRACTS AND GRANTS, Agencies Have Taken Steps to Improve Suspension and Debarment Programs.

In the transmittal of the report to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform House of Representatives, William T. Woods said, by way of background:
Suspensions and debarments are tools that agencies may use to protect the government’s interests by excluding individuals, contractors, and grantees from receiving federal contracts, grants, and other forms of financial assistance based on various types of misconduct. In 2011, we reviewed suspension and debarment efforts at selected agencies and found that the agencies with the most procurement-related suspensions and debarments shared common characteristics, including a suspension and debarment program with dedicated staff, detailed policies and procedures, and practices that encourage an active referral process.
In the summary of what GAO found, it said:
The number of suspension and debarment actions government-wide has more than doubled from 1,836 in fiscal year 2009 to 4,812 in fiscal year 2013. The number of suspension and debarment actions for the six agencies increased from 19 in fiscal year 2009 to 271 in fiscal year 2013 (see table below). The six agencies generally experienced a notable increase starting in fiscal year 2011 when the agencies began to take action to incorporate the characteristics associated with active suspension and debarment programs.

The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee (ISDC) have taken action to strengthen government-wide suspension and debarment efforts. The ISDC has promoted best practices, coordinated mentoring and training, and helped coordinate lead agency responsibility when multiple agencies have an interest in pursuing suspension and debarment of the same entity. Reported increases in the number of suspension or debarment actions suggest that its efforts have been effective. ISDC officials emphasized that increased activity has been coupled with an increased capability to use suspension and debarment appropriately while adhering to the principles of fairness and due process.
The letter observed,
The six agencies we reviewed reported that they highly value the functions performed by the ISDC as a focal point for government-wide suspension and debarment efforts. For example, Treasury officials told us that they designed their suspension and debarment program around the best practices identified by the ISDC, taking advantage of templates, guidance, and mentoring available through the committee. Officials from several agencies noted that the ISDC is instrumental in managing an informal process to help agencies coordinate lead agency responsibility when multiple agencies have a potential interest in pursuing suspension and debarment of the same entity. According to officials from the agencies we reviewed, the ISDC regularly distributes information on new potential cases reported by the agencies. The agencies take into consideration factors such as financial, regulatory, and investigative interests in determining which agency should take the lead in the case. Several of the agencies we reviewed reported that this process helps identify the most appropriate lead, while also involving other agencies that may have a stake in a particular action. Officials from several agencies also reported that ISDC monthly meetings provide an important forum through which suspension and debarment officials can seek advice from agency counterparts on a range of issues.

In addition to speaking with officials from the six agencies we reviewed in 2011, we also reviewed the VA’s suspension and debarment program to determine if government-wide efforts had affected the program. Based on our review, we found that the VA currently has the characteristics associated with active suspension debarment programs. For example, VA has a Debarment and Suspension Committee with a staff of about 10 positions that review all referrals for procurement-related suspension and debarment actions, conduct fact-finding, and present facts and recommendations to the Suspension and Debarring Official. Officials reported that VA has taken action to improve its suspension and debarment program in part in response to government-wide efforts. For example, VA’s Suspension and Debarment Committee is currently drafting standard operating procedures to reflect leading practices. VA officials reported that the number of procurement-related suspension and debarment actions at VA has increased from 34 in fiscal year 2011 to 73 in fiscal year 2013.
Given the current uproar (not before time) regarding the failings in the Veterans Administration mishandling of veteran care, the finding in respect of the VA are particularly newsworthy.
Agency reaction to the report is described as follows: We provided a draft of this report to OMB and the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, Justice, Homeland Security, State, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs for review and comment. In an email response, the Associate Administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy commented that OMB is pleased with the progress agencies have been making to strengthen their capabilities to consider the use of suspension and debarment when necessary. Further, OMB credits the work of the Interagency Suspension and Debarment Committee in helping to make many of the achievements possible. None of the seven agencies we reviewed provided substantive comments, but the Departments of Commerce, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security provided technical comments which we incorporated, as appropriate.
It is regrettable that no substantive response from any of the agencies reviewed were received. An insider's view would be illuminating, shall we say.

See more at this WaPo article: GAO says U.S. government is suspending risky contractors more often, by Christian Davenport.

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