Of Interest: OIG Audits, Inspections and Reports – A Window into Contracting Operations of the US State Department

Some of us have quirky habits.  I happen to love etymology and thoroughly enjoy doing research.  As my children can well attest, I drilled into them never really to believe what they read or are told is fact; always verify the information and go to the source, whenever possible.  Even those “experts” in their fields, whether in government or out, make mistakes or may not know their subject matter as well as they think they do.

One of the things I learnt working on U.S. Government programs, whether they be contracts or grants, is that the Offices of the Inspector General (OIG) of the various government agencies put out some interesting reports that have a wealth of information.

I find these audits/reports very useful to understand:

  • what a particular agency’s strengths and weaknesses might be,
  • what the contractor/grantee can do to help the agency overcome its weaknesses,
  • what the competition’s competencies and limitations are.

Even if the audit or report pertains to a certain agency or distinct area of performance or a specific geographical place, many of the issues usually addressed do apply across the board.

For example, the latest OIG audit on contract invoicing review by the Bureau of Narcotics and International Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) actually explains the invoicing process as well as the regulations that apply to invoicing.   Program implementation benefits immensely from having program managers or contracts representatives aware of these resources.

Of course, keeping abreast of all these resources requires an enormous amount of time devoted outside of the regular work day.  However, if you are quirky, like me, it is extremely rewarding!

 

Of Interest: Afghanistan and The Book of Kings or Shahnameh

As I have mentioned many a time, I have a soft spot in my heart for Afghanistan, and the work I was involved with for years opened a window into a fascinating world of beauty and history.  I used to pester colleagues with my “Of Interest” emails, in which I would relate things that made me ponder.  Now, I shall not just ponder, but actually read The Book of Kings:

Samangan is one of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.  What I did not know, is that it is also the setting of an epic love story, that comes from the Persian equivalent of the Odyssey and the Ilyad:  The Book of Kings, or Shahnameh.

The story, written in verse around 1,000 years ago by Persian poet Ferdowsi, tells how a mighty warrior, Rustam, makes it all the way to Samangan, seeking his lost horse.  While the guest of the king, Rustam retires to his chambers, after enjoying a sumptuous meal with the king, only to be woken up by the king’s daughter, Tahmineh, who declares her love for the warrior.  That one night of passion, that results in a marriage, yields a son, whom Rustam will only meet in battle many years hence.

The woeful story of Rustam and Tahmineh and their son Sohrab starts like this:

STORY OF SOHRÁB
O ye, who dwell in Youth’s inviting bowers,
Waste not, in useless joy, your fleeting hours,
But rather let the tears of sorrow roll,
And sad reflection fill the conscious soul.
For many a jocund spring has passed away,
And many a flower has blossomed, to decay;
And human life, still hastening to a close,
Finds in the worthless dust its last repose.
Still the vain world abounds in strife and hate,
And sire and son provoke each other’s fate;
And kindred blood by kindred hands is shed,
And vengeance sleeps not—dies not, with the dead.
All nature fades—the garden’s treasures fall,
Young bud, and citron ripe—all perish, all.

And now a tale of sorrow must be told,
A tale of tears, derived from Múbid old,
And thus remembered.—

What a beautiful translation!  It is so true that “All nature fades–the garden’s treasures fall, young bud, and citron ripe–all perish, all.”  

You can find the whole translated epic in Project Gutenberg.  There is also a new illustrated version of the Shahnameh, that has been a labor of love for filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian.

Rustam in Samangan meets the King’s daughter, Tahmineh.

The Atlantic Magazine and CNN have interesting articles explaining the new version of the Shahnameh.

Enjoy!

SIGAR’s Advice on Program Implementation.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) produced an audit of a Department of Defense (DOD) $635 million program in Afghanistan -the Task Force for Business and Stability Operations (TFBSO), which yields some self-evident and interesting points:

Taking the following actions might improve such an entity’s ability to implement programming and achieve results:

• Define the entity’s mission, scope, and objectives in clear and measureable terms.
• Authorize the entity for longer than 1-year intervals to reduce uncertainty about its future and allow it time to plan ahead for its projects.
• Direct the entity to:

o Develop contract planning policies that emphasize the importance of understanding host-country or local dynamics and obtaining buy-in from all stakeholders before executing a project;
o Develop and implement action plans to minimize the award of  oncompetitive and sole-source contracts;
o Develop and implement action plans to ensure that its staff has adequate training and experience in developing contract requirements and providing contract oversight;
o Work with a single primary contract administration office when developing performance work statements to ensure consistency in drafting requirements;
o Develop management systems to track project metrics, civilian travel, and government-furnished equipment;
o Develop and implement a document retention policy; and
o Develop monitoring, evaluation, and sustainment plans for all projects so that their economic impacts can be accurately measured and sustained, and if necessary, assets can be transferred to an enduring partner.

SIGAR mentions that DOD was given the opportunity to comment on the audit.  Something that struck me was SIGAR’s comment to DOD’s comment, which -in my experience- is the crux of development aid or foreign assistance (emphasis in bold below is mine):

It is important to understand the difference between projects that met or partially met their contractual deliverables and projects that actually met or partially met their program objectives.  DOD is correct in observing that this report finds the contracts directly supporting 16 TFBSO projects generally met their contract deliverables and that contracts directly supporting 12 projects partially met their contract deliverables (or in one case, met them after significant delay). However, just because some TFBSO contractors met their contract deliverables in whole or in part does not necessarily mean that the projects they supported had successful or sustainable outcomes. For example, there are several documented cases where TFBSO contractors completed construction and equipment of a facility, but TFBSO was unable to locate a private company able to operate and maintain it, leading that facility to fall into a state of disuse or disrepair.  Furthermore, as we note in the report, because TFBSO did not consistently track outcomes data, such as the jobs created and government revenues generated by their projects, TFBSO was generally unable to demonstrate whether its projects met its overall objectives to “reduce violence, enhance stability, and support economic normalcy in Afghanistan.”

At the end of the day, what worries me is that many in government and the private sector voice these concerns; however,  not often are the solutions offered taken into account, or, worse still, they are quickly forgotten.  In my own experience, these concerns and suggestions have been made for decades.  I have a theory -which I will try to articulate later- as to why we seem to reinvent the wheel…

 

An Afghan Prison, a Loom, a Heater, and Cinderella’s Slipper.

My Afghan friend sent me an article from The Economist today, with the harsh comment: NO COUNTRY imprisons a larger share of its people than America.” , which made me thing of my Afghan experience…

A few years ago I thought that one day I would be able to write about my experiences visiting an Afghan prison.  I am one of those lawyers who has never seen the inside of a prison, except for some, like Robben Island, that today are museums.

Despite the time that has gone by, it is still all too fresh in my mind and I cannot quite capture the myriad of emotions I went through while visiting this place.  It had to be one of the strangest, most surreal, perturbing, curious, worrying, enigmatic, perplexing, and frankly- bizarre yet hopeful experiences of my entire life.  Am sure there are more adjectives to describe my emotions.

I had the rare opportunity to visit the cells, talk to the prisoners -the young ones in English, the older ones with an interpreter- and observe a selected few in their rehabilitation or vocational environments that involved working with metal, leather and wool.

The prisoner cobblers were working on creating charming women and girls’ shoes.  There was something touching to see these men (all convicted hard-core criminals) cutting and gluing and nailing together all these shoes.  There was a master cobbler who was teaching the prisoners how to be shoemakers.

We did not speak the same language.  We come from different worlds.  They were making useful and pretty things; some prisoners seemingly delighting in the novelty of a visit by strangers… others oblivious to anything other than tending to their craft with serious and meticulous concentration.  One of these days I will share the entire experience.  Indeed, it has all to do with Rule of Law.  I just need to figure out how best to share this…  These not-so=good photos were taken by yours, truly.

A prison cobbler tending to his trade. A prison cobbler tending to his trade.

Made in prison: a Cinderella slipper. Made in the largest prison in the world:  a Cinderella slipper.

A prison loom. A prison loom.

Hand-made water heaters from corrugated metal. Hand-made water heaters from corrugated metal.