Soloway: Advocate for competition

Thinker envisions a government transformed by competitive sourcing

Among issues that affect federal employees, few are more polarizing than competitive sourcing. Office of Management and Budget officials estimate that a quarter of the jobs federal workers perform are subject to competitive sourcing rules.

Competition between public- and private-sector employees for jobs that are inherently nongovernmental dates back to President Eisenhower's administration, but Bush administration officials have emphasized such competition by making it one of the five initiatives on the President's Management Agenda.

In 2003, OMB officials revised Circular A-76, a document that sets rules for competitive sourcing, and the outcry from foes reverberated loudly in 2004.

Labor Department employees rallied last summer on the steps of the Frances Perkins Building in Washington, D.C., to denounce what they called government-for-profit. In speeches and amendments to congressional bills, lawmakers such as Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) criticized OMB officials for "an ideologically run agenda to contract out more and more federal government jobs."

Not that competitive sourcing proponents lacked lung power. Prominent among advocates last year was Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, a group representing professional services companies.

Soloway is a little perplexed at being so closely identified with the competitive sourcing controversy. "I spent more time last year on Iraq [contracting issues] by far than I did on A-76," he said. But follow competitive sourcing through the policy discussion taking place in Soloway's mind, and it becomes apparent why many pay attention to him.

Competitive sourcing "strikes at the heart of how the government functions today and how it'll function in the future," he said.

During the past two decades, federal agencies have changed their information technology, human resources and procurement practices, Soloway said. "The government is increasingly an acquisition organization," and federal agencies are no longer delivering services as much as they are managing those who do.

Soloway said the IT revolution of the past 20 years may have started with technologies the federal government developed, such as the Internet, but the private sector has taken the lead now, drawing talent away from federal agencies and developing new skills.

Other trends are changing the employment picture, he said. Federal workers are leaving the government at the peak of their careers and replacements aren't arriving fast enough.

In the private sector, management trends show less reliance on in-house skills and greater use of contracting where necessary, Soloway said.

"At the end of the day, the A-76 process should be viewed as and treated as a federal procurement," he said.

In filling inherently nongovernmental jobs, the objective should be the delivery of services by whatever organization proves itself most efficient, he added.

Soloway said competitive sourcing's impact on job stability should not hinder government officials' ability to recruit people. "Find me a job in the private sector that guarantees you a job for life," he said.

With industry winning the talent battle, he said, "clearly the job stability issue is not what motivates most people coming into the workforce."

Asked whether government employees care about serving the public more than private-sector workers, who are focused on the bottom line, Soloway said, "I'm not going to suggest that everybody is always pure of intent." But contractors have a work ethic, he added, and good work can be ensured through competition and good contract administration.

Although opponents disagree, Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said Soloway is different because he is "persistent, he's professional, and he advocates his position consistently."

Jacque Simon, policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees, called him "a creative voice."

Debate on competitive sourcing has come to resemble a kabuki dance of statement and counterstatement. OMB officials recently issued a report stating that competitive sourcing studies completed during fiscal 2004 will save the federal government $1.4 billion during the next three to five years.

"Sounds like the usual propaganda from OMB," said John Threlkeld, an AFGE lobbyist, when the report was released.

University of Maryland researchers released a report last October that says only 5 percent of full-time civilian employees left government service involuntarily as a result of competitive sourcing.

Threlkeld responded that the authors used an inadequate database system "that has been sharply criticized by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office as decrepit and outmoded."

For better competitions, Soloway said, federal agencies should use a best-value approach, awarding contracts based not only on low price but also quality of support.

Best-value contracting forces federal agencies to buy costly bells and whistles, Simon said.

In the heated exchanges of 2004, during which opponents of competitive sourcing successfully fended off most challengers, the debate devolved to a point at which "rational discussion about the whole picture of government is very hard to have," Soloway said.

Opponents spent most of last year supporting amendments to major appropriations and authorization bills. Lawmakers did not hold a single hearing on competitive sourcing last year, and observers from both sides said that although congressional majorities voted for anticompetitive amendments, those measures rarely emerged from the conference process.

Nudging the issue away from sound bites to a substantive debate on government transformation is part of this year's agenda, Soloway said.

"I love coming to work here every day because I find this stuff really interesting and fascinating," he said. "You're fighting to keep the pendulum from swinging back on acquisition reform, you're fighting to keep the forward momentum on bringing competition to commercial elements of the government."

"That's good for the government," Soloway added.

About the Author

David Perera is a special contributor to Defense Systems.

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