The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) does all of its work overseas. It engages with local grantees and contractors to do the work in a particular country. Now USAID is launching a new strategy for what it calls A-and-A, acquisition and assistance. For details, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin  with Paloma Adams-Allen, USAID’s deputy administrator for Management and Resources.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin So there is a acquisition, an assistance strategy. Tell us about this. What is it that you need to update? And give us an overall view of what the strategy actually looks like. It seems central to everything USAID does.

Paloma Adams-Allen It indeed is central to everything that we do. USAID routinely launches strategies, strategies for improving how we help partners around the world, strategies to mitigate and adapt to climate change, to promote equity and equality strategies for building a more diverse and equitable workforce. So strategies guide everything that we do. And each of these strategies envisions USAID that partners more directly with local actors and opens up the agency to more partners in the United States as well. And so we want to move beyond not just where we work and who we work with, but the strategy outlines how we work. And that is really a major part of this guidance for how we’re going to work into the future to deliver on our life saving mission.

Tom Temin So assistance ties directly to acquisition because you have to acquire the means locally to do the assistance.

Paloma Adams-Allen Precisely. So acquisition is about purchasing the goods and services needed. It might be food that you need to support people who are suffering in Turkey and Syria following the earthquakes. They might be tents, it might be beds, it might be services and goods that we need here for our staff and for our teams. While assistance is the funding that you provide to the organizations who work with us to run programs to respond to humanitarian crises, etc. So we need both sides, and these are just the tools that we use to get the resources that we get from Congress to deliver on our mission.

Tom Temin Now, the agency has been doing this for a long time. So tell us what is the impetus for updating the A&A strategy?

Paloma Adams-Allen This is our second A&A strategy I understand in many decades. The last one was drafted in 2018, and it was just a different time. We really needed a new strategy to think about how were we going to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impacts economic, social, public health impacts. We also had, the strategy includes a big focus on bolstering USAID’s A&A workforce. Those are the people who are responsible for managing these resources and making sure that we are using them responsibly, partners are using the resources responsibly. So the strategy also looks at bolstering that workforce that had really dwindled, because of hiring freezes and other things. And finally, the Biden administration came in with a focus on empowering the federal workforce writ large, making sure that the assistance that we provide is better localized, i.e., we’re working with more local organizations and directly with them. And so the strategy looks at what did we need to do to reduce barriers to local organizations working more with us, or just to have a broader partner base overall. So reducing bureaucracy, slashing administrative burdens and opening up the agency to wider cross-section of partners.

Tom Temin It sounds like a big challenge there then, would be to make sure that you maintain accountability over those local operators, because they’re in all sorts of nations and all sorts of places that aren’t exactly the same as doing business with well-known companies in the United States.

Paloma Adams-Allen Indeed, I will say, just to be clear, more than 80% of our funding goes to U.S. organizations. So we would be taught we’re talking about just increasing the amount that goes to local organizations. But without question, one of the reasons that we really need to bolster the workforce is that they are stretched thin. These are the members of our workforce who make sure that projects are designed appropriately, that they’re funded appropriately, that our resources are used appropriately. And I will give you a stat that will be a little bit shocking. But, on average, a contracting officer at USAID is responsible for obligating about $100 million. That is compared to, say, approximately $11 million per contracting officer, say, at the Department of Defense. So if your teams are that stretched, there’s a lot of pressure on them to make sure that there’s also proper oversight. So truly bolstering the workforce. And then we are looking at, it can feel like bureaucracy is better oversight, but not necessarily. So how to streamline how we work so that we free up everybody’s time to do better oversight.

Tom Temin And what would some examples of streamlining mechanisms be, do you think?

Paloma Adams-Allen Well, there are a couple that we’re kicking off right now. And in fact, I will say, while we’ve just launched the strategy, we have been doing a lot of this work. And so it includes, I’ll tell you two things that we’re doing. One, is to allow local organizations to actually be able to even apply for funding at USAID. We are allowing them to submit concept papers as opposed to 100 page proposal. Our contract nomination would have to go through 50 to 100 page proposal. Now they can look at a five page proposal and decide whether this makes sense for us. They can also submit them in their local languages and we’re putting in place translation to make sure that they can submit and we can review those documents appropriately. So that just reduces the burden on the workforce. We have launched, crucially, a new platform called Work With USAID. And that is designed to, frankly, acknowledge that those who know how to work with us have a leg up, because they know how to navigate the processes. And so work with USAID opens up the door for any organization to register with USAID to learn about how to partner with us, to make sure that they have access to all of our training sessions, all of our outreach. So all of these are intended to reduce bureaucracy, reduce pressure on our teams, and make sure that they have more time and they’re less burdens on them. We also want to reduce the burdens on our current partners and potential partners who really, I think, rightfully complain that our systems are creaky and that our bureaucracy is heavy and it makes it hard for them to be responsive and to act as quickly as they need to in moments of crisis.

Tom Temin We’re speaking with Paloma Adams-Allen. She’s deputy administrator for management and resources at the U.S. Agency for International Development. And I would think that the degree of simplification of the application must also depend in some part on what it is you’re buying. Say if you’re buying food supplies versus engineering services for a new water station somewhere. One’s way more complex and prone to problems than the other. So is that kind of calibration built into the new strategy also?

Paloma Adams-Allen I would hope so. I will say, in general, in cases of sort of humanitarian assistance, we really search as much support as possible to the bureaus that are responsible for getting help to folks. And so one, is just to have more streamlined processes in those cases, but also to make sure that the minute the earthquake hit, for instance, in Syria or Turkey, we start scanning what partners do we have, what partners do we need to get assistance as quickly as possible on our contracting officers. I have one instance that I’m thinking of right now, the White Helmets, a local Syrian organization and its emergency response organization that operates in the areas that were impacted. And we immediately saw that we needed to be able to work with them quickly to get them resources, to purchase ambulances, to get support to folks, for instance. And so we acted in two days and something that would have taken us on average, about 40 days to stand up a project with them to get the resources that needed and they saved, were able to save over 2,000 people. So we do calibrate depending on the nature of the emergency. But I would love to say that it is easier to fund a small project than a large project or a large procurement versus small procurement. But in some cases, I don’t know that our systems were that flexible. So that’s something that we’re really trying to do.

Tom Temin Because the strategy does mention cultural shifts needed for engagement. And at least everywhere else, certainly in DoD that you mentioned, the contracting officer culture is a little stodgy. And so when you talk about culture change, do you mean not just for COs, but for other people within USAID?

Paloma Adams-Allen For both. I think some of it is contracting officers, which is making sure that they are comfortable being a part of the design process for projects, as well as that sort of rigor that they bring to making sure that it’s good design. So they need to understand the problem that we’re trying to solve and be a part of the full process, which we don’t always do very well. So that’s one of the things that we’re trying to push forward, which is we want to make sure that it’s collaborative and that our A&A workforce is working very closely with our technical staff and with our colleagues overseas in the field and feel full ownership and understanding for the types of projects. And I think that streamlines the bureaucracy that ends up happening if they come in a little bit later in the process. But I think the big cultural shift is to think about instead of sort of going toward default processes, always questioning it. Is this the fastest we could do this? Is this the most efficient way that we could do this? Are we being the most creative? Like understanding how crucial this function of the A&A function is to USAID being able to deliver on any part of its mission. Without this function working, we cannot do anything that we are asked to do by Congress or by our president or on behalf of the American people.

Tom Temin And the new strategy has three basic objectives. Workforce enabled, equipped and empowered, streamlined and effective, A&A integrated throughout the agency’s development approach, more diverse set of partners. Do you have timelines and metrics for these objectives?

Paloma Adams-Allen Well, we definitely have timelines. This strategy is a five-year strategy. And as I said, we have actually started implementing components of it. And one of the big things we’ve started implementing is on the workforce side, which is we are surging as much of new positions as we can to grow the contracting officer particular backstop. We are also looking at short-term hiring mechanisms to help, as I said, in those search moments. So we have started a lot of that. Staffing is challenging, that depends on when we get resources from Congress and how. But our goal is to continue to grow that backstop in particular. So I would just say that has started. There is an implementation plan that we have shared with partners and everybody to give us feedback essentially, and that includes a range of milestones for how we plan to hit all of these objectives and when we think we will be able to hit those objectives. I feel a sense of urgency, so I want us to get to all of it in a year. But it is a five-year strategy.