As of May 2021, federal agencies had obligated billions of dollars in contracts for medical supplies and other pandemic-related goods and services. Most (88%) went to vendors with prior federal experience, but in 2020, the share of contracts going to vendors new to federal contracting was 5 times greater than in a typical year.
Contracting during an emergency can be challenging. For example, contracting officers had to buy things that their agencies don’t usually buy, and faced pressure to award contracts quickly.
As of May 31, 2021, agencies obligated $61.4 billion for contracts in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Agencies cancelled $4 billion in obligations, in some cases due to contract terminations. The proportion of obligations to vendors with prior federal experience government-wide was 88 percent but varied by agency. In calendar year 2020, agencies awarded about 5 times as many contracts to vendors without prior federal contracting experience for COVID-19, as compared to contracts awarded overall in preceding calendar years.
For the selected contracts GAO reviewed across four agencies—the Departments of Defense (DOD), Health and Human Services (HHS), Agriculture (USDA), and Homeland Security (DHS)—contracting officials identified a number of challenges, including:
- working with vendors new to federal contracting or vendors supplying products they had not previously provided;
- operating under limited time frames to make awards; and
- contracting for supplies and services the agency does not typically buy.
The four agencies are collecting and sharing lessons learned related to their COVID-19 response. However, HHS and DHS have not included contracting lessons learned, even though they identified contracting challenges. Collecting contracting lessons learned could inform future emergency response efforts. Furthermore, although interagency coordination was critical to the response, contracting lessons learned are at risk of not being reflected in formal interagency lessons learned efforts. Without a process to do so, federal agencies risk missing an opportunity to memorialize contracting and coordination practices that were successful, as well as those that were not, for future emergencies.
GAO is making 10 recommendations, including that agencies establish processes to better collect and communicate contracting lessons learned during emergencies such as COVID-19. Agencies agreed with nine recommendations. OMB did not agree to establish time frames for updating its guidance. GAO continues to believe OMB should do so, as discussed in this report.