WINCHESTER, Va. -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers exemplifies a learning organization by sharing information and experiences, and applying lessons learned.

The Middle East District strives to improve processes, communication and other issues directly affecting contractors involved in USACE projects in the Middle East and Central Asia.

When the district, on behalf of the Transatlantic Division, awarded the $3.8 billion capacity Multiple Award Task Order Contract in June 2011, the team established an avenue for feedback and communication with the contractors and scheduled a post award conference for early 2012.

"The project delivery team wanted to give contractors a chance to propose on the first few task orders so they could let us know what was working and what we could do to improve the process," said Michelle Pearman, contract specialist.

The MATOC was awarded to 14 firms for design-build and construction projects throughout the 20 countries of U.S. Central Command's area of responsibility: Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, U.A.E., Uzbekistan and Yemen.

At the start of the conference and while encouraging maximum participation with attending USACE representatives, Middle East District Commander Col. Jon Christensen said, "We could not perform our missions overseas without great partners like you. Thank you for helping us meet our engineering and construction needs overseas on behalf of our nation. Give us your feedback so that we can become even better partners throughout the life of these MATOCs."

The MATOCs were competed using a full and open, unrestricted process in accordance with the Federal Acquisition Regulation, providing a fair and impartial evaluation of proposals received. The final selection was based on the government's evaluation of all criteria established for this MATOC.

Panel discussion

Before the conference, the district asked the contractors to submit up to three comments, concerns or issues involving the MATOC process, and 12 of the 14 contractors responded. The Deputy for Programs and Project Management Deborah Duncan, Contracting Officer Jo-Ann Bray, Support for Others Branch Chief Bill Ryals, Project Manager Romel Punsalan, Assistant Counsel Jeremy Becker-Welts, and Pearman addressed contractor-submitted issues, some sparking further, sometimes passionate, discussions among the contractors and USACE representatives.

Evaluation of proposals: "There are two types of evaluations -- the LPTA or lowest price technically acceptable and BVTO or best value using the trade-off process," Pearman said. "For the majority of the task orders, you will see in the RFPs (requests for proposal) that the evaluation will be LPTA since all 14 MATOC holders are capable of performing the majority of the projects. But, since the project delivery team will determine the source selection criteria on each task order, some may be evaluated using the best value process."

Timelier award of task orders: "Our goal is to award within 30 days of receiving the proposals," said Pearman, "although some of the more complex task orders could take longer."

Contractor questions: "There's a system in place for bidder inquiries," said Chief of Contracting Division Darralyn Williams. "We will answer your questions through the ProjNet System."

ProjNet is a secure, web-based management tool for information exchange. It facilitates interaction among the government team and contractors.

"When we issue a solicitation, we include a ProjNet key," said Pearman. "When contractors have bid inquiries, they go to the ProjNet secure site to ask questions. The government answers those questions in ProjNet. All MATOC holders can see all the questions and answers."

Changing dates for various reasons: "Sometimes there are outside factors that drive the actions of the government," said Duncan. "It may be that we have some very hard dates from customers and cannot give more time."

Project cancellations: "When we post our list of upcoming contracts, we are 99 percent sure we are getting that funding," Duncan said. "But there are many things beyond our control that may cause a cancellation. Prices, customer requirements, volatility of the region, directives from the Defense Department -- all that can cause a change beyond our control. Your frustration is our frustration."

"We had the same issues in Iraq a couple years ago," said Ryals. "We, too, didn't want to put significant effort into a project only to have our higher headquarters send a 'project cancelled' notice. We understand your concerns with applying critical resources only to see the project cancelled. If we don't think a project is actually going to happen, we would not put it out there. Most cancellations are due to military re-evaluations and requirements that have changed, meaning certain facilities are no longer needed."

"We appreciate everyone's interest in the work," said Becker-Welts. "We publish a list of upcoming projects so that all of you will have an opportunity to take a look at those and decide what work is in your area, what's good for you to do. We are hoping this gives you the opportunity to plan what you want to bid on."

Procurement Opportunities

Once contractor-issues were addressed, the topic shifted to procurement of materials in the region. Lt. Col. John Hudson, Defense Logistics Agency's Joint Contingency Acquisition Support Office, addressed leveraging procurement activities to provide opportunities for economic expansion within the CENTCOM theater of operations.

"Our mission is to support contingency commands worldwide to develop and execute their contingency operational contracting strategy," said Hudson. "Specifically, I work on helping CENTCOM increase procurement in Central Asia."

Hudson presented several opportunities for contractors to consider as they put their proposals together for projects executed in Central Asia or Afghanistan.

In 2010, the U.S. Congress in Section 801 of the National Defense Authorization Act established a preference for buying products and services, including construction, in Afghanistan from Central and South Asian States when supporting military and stability operations in Afghanistan. CENTCOM commander at the time Gen. David Petraeus issued Policy Letter Number 40, and current Commander Gen. James Mattis reissued it in September 2011, providing further guidance.

"Our objective is to for you to consider looking within that region for your construction materials," Hudson said. "Through six separate procurement team trips to Central Asia, we found significant capacity within the region to produce a wide variety of quality construction materials and equipment.

"There are some potential benefits of procuring materials in the region," Hudson said. "Because it's close, transportation costs could be reduced or roughly one-quarter to one-third vs. shipping something from the U.S. Time could be saved, depending on border crossings. Materials made in the region are pretty well priced, and they are made to regional standards."