Last week, the Government Accountability Office dismissed my November 6 blog posting that raised the possibility it might have a conflict of interest in judging tanker protests. GAO is responsible for reviewing such protests, but as I pointed out in the blog posting, its workers were recently organized by an AFL-CIO affiliate that stridently opposes purchasing the Northrop-Airbus tanker because of its European origins.
I didn’t really think GAO had a conflict. In fact, I said in the posting it was an “absurd” idea. The lawyers who assess protests for GAO are not members of the union, and strive to be objective. But as the organization sought to make that case to reporters last week, it became apparent that the Government Accountability Office has a different kind of ethical problem. The problem is that it has a double standard concerning conflicts of interest. It wants to operate according to one set of rules, while subjecting everyone else to a more demanding set of rules.
GAO has argued for years that there needs to be a stricter standard in determining when conflicts of interest should preclude companies from participating in systems engineering and technical assistance (SETA) contracts. Those contracts often involve assessing contractor performance on weapons programs, and it has been common for companies involved in building weapons systems to also engage in SETA work. Procedures such as firewalls were created to ensure any potential conflicts arising from doing both kinds of work would be minimized — procedures that enabled the government to tap the best analytic talent available.
But GAO argued the mere appearance of a conflict of interest should be enough to exclude companies from SETA work, even when methods for mitigating conflicts were readily available. That standard is now being implemented across the defense acquisition system, and as a result the government can no longer call on some of its most capable providers of technical expertise. To make matters worse, the new approach relies heavily on the subjective assessment of individual contracting officers as to when companies can participate in SETA work and what mitigation procedures are required. The result is chaos — the kind of chaos that will lead to abuses and protests, as I said in my November 6 posting.
That brings me back to GAO’s ethical problem. Having argued that appearance should be enough to exclude companies from SETA work, it now proposes that a different standard be applied to its own activities. Sure, it says, we are organized by an anti-Airbus union. And yes, while the attorneys that review tanker protests are not members of the union, they are surrounded by workers who are. The attorneys sit next to them at lunch. They carpool with them. They socialize with them on weekends. But ignore the appearance of conflict, GAO says, because we have procedures in place to mitigate any conflicts. Okay GAO, so tell me again why appearances are so important in the case of defense contractors, but not when your own employees are involved in doing similar work.
Sounds like a double standard to me.
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