Archive for the ‘How Contracts Get Messed Up’ Category

A Day In The Field – Month 9 (or …)

November 22, 2009

Mad Moments 5 (or …)

How Projects Get Messed Up (or …)

Spring 2007

I dragged ex-boss Tom out to Alamo Road today. Well, come to think of it, he rather foolishly volunteered (must have been a dreadful meeting on the schedule …), choosing a day dedicated to digging holes in the road shoulders.

This unpleasantly arduous activity was ordered by some officers and talking heads up in air-conditioned Baghdad. During a recent telecom they asked whether the road is really 9cm thick all the way out to the edges. While I stifled giggles and rolled my eyes, Tom leaned toward the phone speaker and said, “For the most part, yes!”

A typical Tom answer, this is accurate without necessarily being true. It was offered with the hope that (for the most part!) they’d be satisfied and move on. Really, of all the things to be worried about on this project, the edges of the road probably ought not be on the radar. These aggressive vocal overseers of ours could worry about the subbase, the base, the thickness of the asphalt in the lanes, or in the center, or better yet, the constitution of the asphalt itself! Really, if so inclined, Tom and I could suggest some really important things to worry about … but Tom is a secretive and diplomatic fellow.

My own inclination would be to tell all these generals and colonels and majors and paper engineers every single deficiency of the project. Left to my own forthright devices, I would tell them that due to their constant, unholy pressure to get the work completed at the stated expense of quality, they’re now in no position to be whining and fretting to us about the outcome. I would also point out to them (politely, and using the word ‘sir’ as often as it struck my fancy) that their own pitiful budget was understood at the very beginning to be inadequate to the needs of this light military transport road, meaning the design was substandard even before, by the way, they changed the designation and intended use of the road from a light military transport road to a heavy military transport road halfway through the project without having provided any collateral shift in funding or design in order to accommodate their own changes …

But that’s just me.

Where was I? Oh yes, the telecom wherein the brass are beating on us (again) and Tom is taking it … Is the asphalt 9cm thick on the edges? For the most part it is.

“Go measure it,” someone snapped at us through the phone speaker. I made a nasty face at Tom. He made a nasty face back, then leaned toward the phone speaker and chirped, “Roger that!”

I’ve noticed that when Tom thinks an order is stupid, he says, Roger that! instead of something more normal for a civilian, like ok. I’ve noticed that most of the military men respond to stupid orders with that phrase as well. I’ve decided that I’m going to practice doing it. I’m going to try to remember to add “sir” to the end of it to see if Tom can keep from busting out laughing when I say it.

Just for the record, digging eighteen holes at five kilometer intervals down the shoulder of a 109 kilometer road in 120F wearing a full uniform and body armor … sucks.

About four hours into this farce we finally hung it up. Sweat-stained and a bit sun-dazed, we climbed back into the Land Cruisers and told the PSD men to take us home. I stared out the window wondering how the colonels would take the news that only about seventy percent of the road edges were to spec. The answer to that didn’t take long to figure out, so I emptied my mind and just stared out at the beautiful expanse of gold sand, effectively ignoring the stupid road we were now driving back north on, passing all the stupid little holes we’d chipped into its shoulders.

“I think,” Tom said suddenly, turning to look at me with a satisfied expression on his face, “that we should write up the scope of work for the maintenance contract on this road so that the contractor has to make all the patches to the road in shapes of different animals.”

I stared back at him, trying to catch up. Road patches in the shapes of animals?

Ignoring my blank stare, Tom went on. “Then we could just say, There’s a new pothole out by the lion, or The giraffe area needs a surface treatment – it’s unraveling.

We both turned our heads to look straight ahead, between the heads of our PSD men in the front seats, through the ballistic windshield glass, and down the long straight black asphalt road we were traveling. Huh.

“It might help keep the convoy truck drivers awake,” I suggested. “The road has so few landmarks of any kind. This would give them something fun to look forward to. They might say, Oh good, we’re already to the rhino – we only have the mouse, the lizard and the tiger, then we’re already on Tampa!”

“We could have the contractor post signs,” Tom added. “Just a picture of a rabbit or a donkey on the sign. Then people would know where they were in the dark.”

I turned to stare at Tom again for a moment. His cheeks were sunburned, but other than this idea of road patches in the shapes of animals he didn’t seem sun-addled. His mysterious knack for maintaining a sense of humor and essential calm in the face of profound stupidity and aggravation might no longer be so mysterious; a creative imagination is a valuable resource. 

“What?” he asked.

“I just had no idea,” I admitted.

I turned back to my own window and stared out at the desert, now choosing animals that might be appropriate to the environment: lizard, goat, hawk, toad, sheep …



When Projects Work or How Contracts Get Messed Up

November 16, 2009

Spring 2007

Today CMD Mike went to the site of a small water treatment plant in order to conduct the final inspection and sign off on the paperwork, releasing the project into the custody of the village.

The project, located in a small village in Thi Qar province, experienced a rocky beginning. The project location was identified in the contract as a village name and a lat-long position. The name alone could have referred to any one of five or six villages, being a common village name. The lat-long location that designated the project location was more effective, narrowing it down to one village, but when the Iraqi contracting company initially visited that lat-long location, they found that the US Air Force was already funding construction of a water treatment plant on that very site.

Although many people seem to believe that the Corps of Engineers initiates and funds projects, that is not the case. The Corps has no money of its own. The Corps is essentially a project design and management branch of the military, so what it does is design and manage others’ projects with their funding. Here in Iraq, specifically, the Corps is paid by the Army and the State Department to organize the necessary information for contracts, sometimes design the project, award the contract, and finally to manage these reconstruction and military construction contracts.

The water treatment project in this small village that I’ll call Al Ma was funded by the US State Department. The project was initiated, however, by the Thi Qar Provincial Reconstruction and Development Council (PRDC), a body that is composed entirely of Iraqis coached by the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT). In an exercise intended to encourage ownership in the reconstruction projects, and to encourage and train the Iraqis to identify and prioritize projects in their provinces, the State Department designates a certain dollar amount of reconstruction monies to each PRDC. The PRDC accepts project applications from communities, then sorts the ideas, prioritizes the ideas, and chooses which will be funded. The PRDC is then required to develop a project description, including project location, for each proposed project. In a perfect world, the PRDC is actually supposed to design the project, although the PRDC’s in our area have never provided even detailed project descriptions. What we normally receive from the PRDC is a village or city name, a lat-long position fixing the construction site, and a brief project description: “xx/hr reverse osmosis water treatment plant” for instance.

When the PRDC has their list of projects completed and prioritized, they pass it on to the PRT, who passes the list to the State Department, who passes the approved list to us at the Corps. We, the Corps, then take the list of essentially bare bones project descriptions and build them into contracts. We design what needs designing, draft the contract, advertise the contract, accept bids, rate the bids, and award the contract. We then manage project implementation; in plain English, we babysit the contractor to be sure that contractor is following the contract and applicable laws.

… Wow, this all sounds so orderly and functional when I describe it like this! In reality, an astonishing – perhaps infinite – number of difficulties complicate this process in ways that continually tempt me to beat my skull against the nearest wall.

The little water project in the village of Al Ma began as an example of one way that contracts can get screwed up. When we received the project description from the PRDC through the PRT representatives that liaise with us, we didn’t require the PRT to ground-check the location or verify ownership of the proposed project site, nor did we go out in the field to ground check it ourselves. We assumed the location provided by the PRDC was good. Oops! We wrote up the contract, sent it out for bids, and awarded the work to an Iraqi contractor.

Who, upon driving to the site to begin work, discovered another contractor, funded by the Air Force, building a water treatment plant on the site identified in our contract.

(The fact that the US Air Force would be building a water project on a location that the US Army and State Department had approved as a location to build a water treatment plant might properly be seen as a colossal failure to communicate, but I’m going to just note that and sail right on by, as this sort of snafu is, though not common, at least not surprising.) 

I would have solved this by taking the location back to the PRT, personally, but the field office chose to send one of their Iraqi engineers out to investigate.

The Iraqi engineer sent out to investigate the mystery of the project location was a man I’ll call Ali, who had been twice fired by the Corps for suspicious actions in connection with projects he’d been assigned. Without going into specifics, he was a man who seemed to have his own self-serving agenda. Although he was suspected of nefarious back door dealings, CMD Mike refused to fire him (again) because Ali was effective at solving problems. (My pointing out to CMD Mike that he caused as many or more problems than he solved only earned a wry laugh.)

Our initial theory was that the PRDC had identified the project and site without actually securing ownership of the site. While Ali investigated out in the real world of Iraq, CMD Mike and I separately sought off-the-record discussions with the PRT representatives, and with our bosses, and with one person in the State Department, suggesting that it was a land ownership issue and assuring them that we had the inquiry under control. We wanted these interested parties to know that there was a problem and that we were actively seeking a solution so they’d know why the project was delayed, and we wanted it off the record so that no one panicked and stepped in to mess things up even more … (which is a functional and even tactically critical strategy that I, for one, have learned the hard way!).

Ali returned to the office every few days with some piece of news, then with information that contradicted that news, then with some other tidbit of possible fact, then with more. He went back out to investigate.

About one month after Ali had originally been sent out to investigate, he returned with an unwavering opinion: he had concluded that the project was not meant to have been built at the lat-long provided in the PRDC description at all, but rather at another village named Al Ma, located twenty miles north of the original village of Al Ma. I voiced my concerns that Ali had relatives living in this village, or that he’d extracted payment from the village on behalf of his proposing to us that this village was the intended site – (hell, the villagers may even simply be calling this village Al Ma for a few weeks in order to get a water treatment plant!), but CMD Mike was pleased with the results and didn’t want to tinker. When I suggested that someone at least confirm the new Al Ma conclusion with the PRDC, I was brushed off. The Al Ma twenty miles north desperately needed a water treatment plant; the Al Ma of the contract description was already being taken care of by the Air Force; the Al Ma twenty miles north had a location that would be perfect for a water treatment plant; and we had a contractor itching to go to work.

A contract modification was written up, changing the lat-long to match the Al Ma twenty miles north. No one at the PRT or PRDC came screaming into our offices, so it was assumed they approved of the new location. The State Department signed the modification without comment.


The contractor went to work. He not only went to work, his construction was of excellent quality. He chose high quality components and installed them with skill. His equipment was well cared for, the site was kept tidy, and his men all wore hard hats and boots. He stayed on schedule. He finished a 200cm/hr reverse osmosis water treatment plant in three short months, and he trained a local man to operate the plant.


When CMD Mike arrived at the site this morning in order to conduct the final inspection, he was met by the entire village of Al Ma. When he’d climbed out of the truck, men, women and children swarmed him with huge smiles on their faces. Adults and children grabbed his hands to hold while they thanked him.

When things calmed down, the head of the village then formally thanked CMD Mike for this water treatment plant. With tears in his eyes, he explained that until now the village people and animals drank from shallow wells. The children were often sick, and many had died from the bad water. They were too poor to buy water from the trucks. “Our village,” he told CMD Mike, “has not had clean water before sixteen years.” The village had not had clean water for sixteen years.

This is why we love working in Iraq. Even when we hate it.


How Contracts Get Messed Up – 3

November 14, 2009

Early winter 2006

Until today, one of my favorite projects was dead on schedule, a rare occurrence in this environment. The project is one that will benefit a large portion of the population of the country, and the contractor’s work is of exemplary quality all the way down to the smallest detail. As a dubious bonus, it’s located in a very picturesque spot that visiting VIPs and journalists love to visit. All in all, it’s considered a star.

My Iraqi field engineer informed me today that the project will be falling behind schedule. A key piece of equipment sitting in the hold of a ship lacks the proper piece of paper to be unloaded. In any case, the ship is standing offshore in a long line of ships, all waiting their turn to enter the port.

“Who issues the paperwork,” I ask my engineer. I’m wondering if I know anyone who knows anyone who can pull a few strings.

“There is one woman in Baghdad who issues these papers,” my engineer tells me.

“For all the ships?” I ask. “One woman doing all the papers for each piece of cargo on each ship?”

“For each piece of imported equipment, yes,” my engineer says with a straight face, as if this is a perfectly normal way to do business.


I spend the morning trying to track down a contact phone number or email address of this Paper Lady in Baghdad. I don’t get anywhere before I leave for the field. I’ll try again later, just as soon as I can think of someone else I know in Baghdad who might know someone who would know someone who might know someone else who would know who to call to light a fire under this woman.

In the meantime, since I’m out visiting projects, I stop in at the office of a State Department friend who knows the port in hopes that he can fill me in on the ships lined up waiting to dock. I hadn’t known there were so many. I think it might be useful to know if this sort of delay is likely to affect some of my other projects.

“How many ships are waiting to dock right now,” I ask when I’ve tracked the man down in his camp near one of my projects.

“Sixteen and counting,” State Man answers. “Some have been lined up out there for two months. The so-called port security force is militia. They’ve insinuated themselves more and more into the business of the port over the past year. They won’t allow a ship to enter port without paying a bribe, and once docked they have to pay again to get the cargo unloaded. Security,” he said in a voice dripping with sarcasm, “is worming their way into customs now. The port authorities are powerless to stop them, getting no support from Baghdad.”

“My equipment could sit out there offshore and rot, then,” I conclude.

“It’s possible,” he agrees. “And even if the ship docks and gets unloaded,” he says with a shrug, “then you have to find the right container.”

Eh? I think, making a quizzical face.

“There’s no system for container storage at the port,” he explains. “Ships get unloaded, and the containers just get stacked randomly in the yard. They’re not recorded anywhere, and there’s no filing or tracking system for them. You’ve seen the container yard …”

I nod. I have: containers stacked in rough rows, four high. Acres and acres and acres of containers.

“Are you telling me that for someone to find their container, they have to cruise around through that whole yard reading the numbers on every container until they happen to stumble across their own?” I say, thinking that I might have misunderstood.

“That’s it,” State Man agrees. “There are containers that have been sitting there for years. There’s no telling what’s out there.”

We both stare at each other, thinking about the intriguing possibilities. Huh.


This evening I catch a break, making contact with someone who knows someone who knows who the Paper Lady is and how to contact her.

There my luck ends.

“You’ll get no joy from her,” I’m warned. “She’s a dragon-lady, running on her own time, doling out papers at her own snail’s pace.”

When I reach her by telephone, sure enough, I’m stonewalled. “One by one!” she snaps. “I approve in order! You wait!”


I’ve had to do so many time extensions on projects, it doesn’t take more than ten minutes to get this one written up.  


How Contracts Get Messed Up – 2

November 14, 2009

I’d love to be more specific in describing the perpetual and colossal clusterfuck that this project was, but I’d hate to end up either in court or in front of a Congressional hearing … the project details will have to be left to the reader’s imagination. Since it’s only meant to exemplify another way that war zone contracts get messed up, the whole sorry history of the project might be superfluous to the goal in any case …

For months we push, pull, cajole and threaten a contractor to improve the quality of work his men are doing on a project. The quality is, in every way, abysmal.

A colonel visits the site today with nothing but a lowly sergeant-major as chaperone. He takes a look at a section of the project that isn’t of acceptable quality, as we’ve repeatedly pointed out to the contractor.

“This is good enough,” the colonel says.

“What did you say?” The contractor cries, whipping his head around to look at the officer. His face goes red with excitement. “Did you say This is good enough?” Now he’s nearly hopping up and down with glee. “Can I take your picture here?”

He holds himself still long enough to snap a clear photograph of the colonel next to that section of the project.

The sergeant-major, standing fifteen feet away and behind the colonel, buries his face in his hands. “Oh god,” he moans quietly. “Seren and the boss are gonna go ballistic …”

(He called that one right.)

A government contracting officer must be careful not to make any statements that contradict or amend in any way the written contract. If a statement is made to the contractor by a representative of the government who is, or is perceived to be, a contracting representative for the government, that statement has the authority to legally alter the contract. 

Cheers, sir.

Feel free to crawl back in your hole. (And stay there.)


How Contracts Get Messed Up – 1

November 8, 2009

October 2006

The prison project experienced a peculiar and amusing twist this week:

You’ll need to know that we manage this contract on behalf of the US Army. In other words, the Army instigated the project, approved the designs, supervises our management, and owns the project when it’s complete. The Army is the customer.

The contractor recently bought one kilometer of chain link fence fabric, needed to build the final piece of the project in order to finish by tomorrow, the legal contract completion date.

Two days ago, the Army commandeered the fence fabric, guaranteeing that the contractor will not complete the Army’s contract on time.

The Army stole the Army’s fence fabric!

I’m betting that the Army colonels who frequently harass me for project status updates are not the same Army colonels who stole the fence fabric. And I’m betting that the colonels who stole (ok, ok – commandeered) the fence fabric didn’t give a heads up to the colonels who are responsible for tracking the status of this project …

So I anticipate an avalanche of emails and phone calls from the Army tomorrow, screaming to know why the Army’s prison contract hasn’t been completed on time.

This could be fun! I’ve never had a bombproof excuse for a late completion, but I’m guessing this one will work. I’m guessing it will be very effective in redirecting those colonels pretty quickly, leaving me free to concentrate on some projects with real problems …