Dashboards help Army 'follow the money' in a war zone
- By Paul McCloskey
- Nov 19, 2013
It’s no secret that the war in Afghanistan has cost U.S. taxpayers billions of dollars. Some describe a theater that is “awash with cash.” But how much of that money ever reached its target or was misdirected in the fog of war remains a mystery.
Project at a glance
Name of project: Theater Contract Management Business Tools
Office: DOD Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer, Expeditionary Business Operations
Technology used: Microsoft .NET, SharePoint, Google Maps
Time to implement: 18 months
Before: Commanders in the Afghan theater had no comprehensive view of all the contracts and funding available to them to meet construction and other battlefield requirements.
After: Tools are available under one umbrella so that commanders at various regional contracting centers can check the status of contracts across the theater and before and after a contract status change.
Those questions haven’t been lost on the Defense Department, which, under pressure to change the culture of contracting at DOD, outlined a strategy in 2012 to reshape its business processes by developing IT tools to help “follow the money” and account for the movement of cash on the battlefield.
The ultimate goal, DOD said, “was to provide commanders a comprehensive oversight process and an information management tool that enables them to make timelier, resource-informed operational decisions.”
In taking up the project, the Office of the Deputy Chief Management Officer developed a suite of software tools that it says has brought significant transparency to contracting by the Army Central Command, which manages the Afghan theater.
“They really lacked a comprehensive business picture of their contracting requirements,” said Elizabeth McGrath, DOD’s Deputy Chief Management Officer. Among the unanswered questions were, “how much they had to spend, how much was spent and what were they buying?,” she said.
A commander looking for a construction contract to meet a requirement typically put out a data call to find out who had a contract available that could meet his requirement. “They didn’t know what they didn’t know,” McGrath said.
“What the tools do is put at the fingertips of the commander the ability to know exactly how many contracts he has in place, their period of performance, the financial picture on that contract, when it is runs out,” McGrath said. “With them, he can make better business decisions on sourcing and procurement.”
Although they work together, each of the three tools addresses different theater business applications.
TRCER (Theater Requirements, Contracting, and Execution Reconciliation) is a dashboard application that links databases holding contracting, expenditures and other financial data.
The tool helps interconnect people, equipment and supplies and, in general, supports better decision-making. “TRACR ties a contract to a requirement and also ensures visibility of [funding],” McGrath said. “If a commanding officer needs (to fill a requirement), he has a much better financial picture with the TRACR tool.” In developing TRACR, IT staffers used agile development techniques so that system features could be added in weeks rather than months.
While TRCER provides an overview of a contract, TRGT, the Theater Requirements Generation Tool, helps commanders generate more accurate and timely initial requirements.
Using checklists and drop-down menu features, contract requirements can be articulated more accurately. “People often want things they eventually don’t need,” McGrath said. TRGT helps commanding officers set and validate requirements, “in a much more centralized way as opposed to decentralized way, which was what they were doing,” she said.
The Acquisition Common Operating Picture (ACOP) tool supplies a centralized view of the status of construction contracts. Before development of the tool, each Regional Contracting Center maintained a separate Microsoft Excel spreadsheet or Access database containing requirements and contract data.
“There are so many construction requirements and they had so many independent service contractors that they needed to have a more centralized picture of who was doing what,” said McGrath, who called ACOP a niche tool designed especially to handle the profusion of contracts in the Afghan theater.
Together the new tools and processes significantly changed the way Army commanders conduct business in the Afghan war theater. The lack of tools “was just eating their lunch,” McGrath said. “Now the commanders have visibility into the contract a comprehensive way — and can meet the mission they were asked to execute.”