by James A. Bacon
The Commonwealth of Virginia needs to reform its procedures for contracting and administering billions of dollars of contracts, the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) has found in a new study.
In 2015 Virginia spent more than $6 billion through contracts, including for transportation projects, information technology, and building construction, noted JLARC. The process for managing the contracts is decentralized, with each agency handling its own work. State procurement staff are insufficiently schooled in risk management, and the state pays insufficient attention to monitoring and enforcing the contracts.
Even though contracts account for a significant portion of state spending, the state does not maintain comprehensive information on how contracts are performing. This prevents individual agencies and state-level decision makers from assessing whether their investments in individual contracts have provided value to the state. It also prevents agency staff from avoiding problematic vendors and developing and administering contracts in a way that takes into account previous “lessons learned” at their own agency or other agencies.
JLARC embarked upon the study in 2014 after the maladministration of the U.S. 460 superhighway project resulted in a $250 million loss to the state without any ground being cleared or asphalt laid. The state has been embroiled in other high–profile contractual disputes involving the provision of IT services and the explosion of a rocket at the Wallop’s Island space port.
“Risk management isn’t on the radar,” said Tracey Smith, study project leader, in a presentation to lawmakers Monday. Writes Michael Martz in the Richmond Times-Dispatch:
Legislators on the commission, particularly the lawyers, expressed shock that state agencies routinely enter into big, often risky contracts without legal advice from the Attorney General’s Office.
Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee, called it “ludicrous” that agencies would draft major contracts without lawyers.
Bacon’s bottom line: State procurement laws reformed corrupt practices of an era in which politicians routinely gave contracts to their friends and supporters. The laws emphasized putting contracts out for competitive bids, procuring the lowest price and making the process transparent. The nature of business has changed over the decades, but with one important exception, the state procurement process has not kept pace.
Unless you’re procuring commodity products like office supplies or janitorial services, the lowest price is almost meaningless. The quality of work is often a critical but hard-to-define variable. Another is the allocation of risk — who pays when something goes wrong? Identifying and allocating risk is why we have lawyers. Sometimes the lawyers get carried away, picking at nits, but they perform a critical business function because things often do go wrong. Accidents occur. Disagreement arise. Unanticipated events throw everyone for a loop.
Government employees are not trained to think about risk. Politicians aren’t inclined to worry about risks that might explode on someone else’s watch.But as contracts grow increasingly complex with the trends to outsourcing and public-private partnerships, the allocation of risk can be as important as the price.
There is one outfit in state government that has been acquiring the competencies to engage in sophisticated risk management — the Office of Public-Private Partnerships (OP3), which oversees contracts for some of the state’s most complex transportation projects. As I recall, OP3 raised red flags relating to the infamous U.S. 460 project but its warnings were overruled for political reasons. The office has developed a network of contacts it can call upon to supplement the skills of its in-house staff. Virginia’s Secretary of Technology and the head of the Department of General Services should have comparable capabilities.
Good management doesn’t excite the electorate like, say, banning guns or restricting bathroom options for transexuals. But billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake. And that makes it a sexy topic for me.