Defense Contracting:

Actions Needed to Explore Additional Opportunities to Gain Efficiencies in Acquiring Foreign Language Support

GAO-13-251R: Published: Feb 25, 2013. Publicly Released: Feb 25, 2013.

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What GAO Found

DOD has taken some steps to gain efficiencies in its approach to contracting for certain types of foreign language support services and products, but its contracting approach for other types remains fragmented across multiple components, and DOD has not explored whether additional opportunities exist to gain efficiencies across this broader range of contracting activity. In 2005, DOD sought to centralize and standardize contracting efforts for foreign language support by designating the Army as an executive agent to manage contracting in this area. In performing its responsibilities, the executive agent has focused its efforts solely on arranging for contracts to acquire translation and interpretation services for contingency operations because of the rapidly increasing requirements for these services. Specifically, from fiscal year 2008 through 2012, the Army, as executive agent, obligated about $5.2 billion for contracts to provide DOD components with translation and interpretation services for contingency operations. During the same time period, we found that multiple DOD components contracted independently for foreign language support outside of the executive agent's management. Specifically, to support the needs of contingency operations, predeployment training, and day-to-day military activities, we identified 159 contracting organizations in 10 different DOD components that obligated approximately $1.2 billion on contracts for foreign language support outside of those managed by the executive agent. In some cases, DOD has gained efficiencies by centralizing contracting for certain foreign language support contracts under an executive agent, but DOD has not comprehensively assessed whether additional opportunities exist to gain efficiencies across a broader range of foreign language support contracts. Best practices for service acquisition suggest that DOD's acquisition approach should provide for an agency-wide view of service contract spending and promote collaboration to leverage buying power across multiple organizations. Implementing such an approach requires an analysis of where an organization is spending its money, which should be the starting point for gaining knowledge that can assist agencies in determining which products and services warrant a more coordinated acquisition approach.8 In commenting on a draft of this report, DOD agreed with our recommendations. DOD also provided technical comments on a draft of this report, which we incorporated, where appropriate. However, DOD has not conducted an analysis of this type to evaluate the whole range of services and products that are currently managed outside the executive agent and determine whether additional efficiencies could be gained. Without a more complete understanding of where the department is spending resources on foreign language support contracts, DOD does not have all of the information it needs to make informed decisions about the types of services and products that could be managed by the executive agent and does not have reasonable assurance that it is fully leveraging its buying power for foreign language support.

Why GAO Did This Study

According to the Department of Defense (DOD), the ability of U.S. military personnel to communicate and interact with multinational partners, security forces, and local indigenous populations can be critical factors to mission success, as evidenced by operational experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. DOD utilizes language professionals and regional experts within its ranks of military personnel to provide foreign language support, such as foreign language skills, regional expertise, and cultural awareness capabilities needed to execute missions, as well as contracted interpreters and translators who provide this support. To meet increased demands on the need for foreign language support from ongoing contingency operations, DOD has relied on contactors to supplement the capability provided by military personnel. For example, the number of contractor personnel required to provide foreign language translation and interpretation services for contingency operations more than tripled from 2004 to 2010 (from about 4,000 to about 14,000). As of November 2012, the number of contractor personnel required by DOD was approximately 9,000. As a result, DOD has made considerable investments in providing contract support. For example, DOD obligated about $6.8 billion from fiscal years 2008 through 2012 to acquire a variety of foreign language-related services and products to support its forces.

We have identified opportunities for DOD to improve its approach to contracting from a broad perspective as well as in areas related to foreign language support. For example, DOD contract management is on our list of high-risk areas in the federal government. In 2013, we noted that DOD needed to take steps to strategically manage the acquisition of services, including developing the data needed to define and measure desired outcomes to improve outcomes on the billions of dollars that DOD spends annually on goods and services. Furthermore, since 2009 we have identified a number of management challenges that DOD has faced in developing a strategic planning process to transform foreign language and regional proficiency capabilities, identifying training requirements, and reducing unnecessary overlap and duplication in foreign language and cultural awareness training products acquired by the military services.

We conducted this work in response to a congressional mandate set forth in Section 21 of Public Law 111-139. That legislation requires that we identify government programs, agencies, offices, and initiatives with duplicative goals and activities and report our findings to Congress. Our objective for this report was to determine the extent to which DOD has taken steps to achieve efficiencies in its approach to contracting for foreign language support, and whether additional opportunities exist to gain further efficiencies.

What GAO Recommends

We are recommending that the Secretary of Defense direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to conduct an assessment of the department's current approach for managing foreign language support contracts to include an analysis of spending for other types of foreign language support services and products that have been acquired by DOD components outside of the executive agent and a re-evaluation of the scope of the executive agent's management efforts to determine if any adjustments are needed.

For more information, contact Sharon Pickups at (202) 512-9619 or pickups@gao.gov.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: DOD concurred with this recommendation. The Department of Defense (DOD) reported taking preliminary steps toward conducting an assessment of its current approach for managing foreign language support contracts, as GAO recommended in February 2013. Specifically, in August 2013, DOD reported that it has required departmental organizations to provide information on their current approaches to managing foreign language support contracts outside of the executive agent (the entity designated to manage contracting in this area), such as spending details on the various types of foreign language support services and products. According to DOD officials representing the Defense Language and National Security Education Office, this office plans to complete an analysis of the information by September 2014. DOD also confirmed in March 2014 that it will reevaluate the scope of the executive agent's management efforts for foreign language support contracts based on the findings of its analysis.

    Recommendation: To improve the department's ability to make more informed decisions about the future direction of the Defense Language Program, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness to assess its current approach for managing foreign language support contracts. At a minimum, such an assessment should (1) include an analysis of spending for other types of foreign language support services and products that have been acquired by DOD components outside the management of the executive agent; and (2) a re-evaluation (based on the results of the analysis of spending outside the executive agent) of the scope of the executive agent's management of foreign language support contracts to determine whether any adjustments are needed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

 

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