Whose best interests?

The recently revised Circular A-76 should accelerate the administration's drive to make federal jobs compete with the private sector. Feds can't be happy about this development.

The Bush administration has long been enamored with the concept of competitive sourcing, which allows companies to compete with feds for work deemed not inherently governmental. The new A-76 is intended to provide a more equitable basis for comparing the cost and value of outsourcing work vs. keeping it in-house.

The work done by about 850,000 federal employees is subject to competition. The administration is urging agencies to open 127,500 federal jobs to contractor competition by Sept. 30, but so far only a small fraction of those jobs have been.

The new rules allow agencies to decide the winners of a competition based on "best value" criteria, whereby those deciding who gets a job (the source selection team) may consider factors other than cost, such as the technology used or the performance promised. But what does "best" mean and how is it measured?

The expanded use of best value as a factor in deciding winners and losers in public/private competitions is a dramatic change in the way federal jobs will compete with the private sector, one that introduces a high degree of subjectivity into the equation.

"These changes are merely an act to give lucrative government work to contractors without any accountability to the taxpayer," said Bobby Harnage, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

It sure seems that way. How can you outsource a federal job because of promised performance? Why should you? Administration officials said that President Bush's goal is to encourage competition and that federal workers could win the contest and keep their jobs. Not very comforting.

One of the few features of the revised rules that I like is that they require commercial work to be reopened for competition every three to five years, regardless of who wins. Therefore, tasks that were privatized can theoretically be returned to the government — but don't hold your breath.

Another piece of good news: the elimination of direct conversions. Direct conversions allow agencies, after making minimal cost comparisons, to turn a government service over to a private contractor without competition if 10 or fewer federal employees are involved.

Nevertheless, federal employee labor unions are right about denouncing the changes. They grant far too much discretion to government managers and will be uncompromisingly used by the administration to pursue its agenda of outsourcing as much government work as possible to private contractors.

I love this president's attitude toward our foes, but his advisers are steering him wrong if they are characterizing feds as foes. Sadly, all the evidence suggests that this is exactly what they are doing.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at milt.zall@verizon.net.

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