Editorial: Making the important decision

It was refreshing to see Mike Griffin, NASA's new administrator, telling employees that the work they do is important. Feds just don't hear enough positive feedback these days. Griffin, however, went further by informing employees at Ames Research Center that he plans to cut back on the outsourcing of research projects so that NASA employees can refocus on basic research.

The Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative has attempted to improve government efficiency. The system is far from perfect, but it has the virtue of adopting a popular theory — that competition spurs organizations to work better and faster and to focus on results — and putting it to the test.

All the test results are not yet in.

Of course, the Bush administration sees successes. The initiative is reducing costs, according to the Office of Management and Budget's "Report on Competitive Sourcing Results" for fiscal 2004, which was issued last week. The report states that every dollar spent on competitive sourcing that year will produce $20 in savings during the next five years.

There were concerns that OMB's A-76 revisions would "dismantle the [government] workforce," but federal employees were selected to perform in about 91 percent of the A-76 competitions in fiscal 2004, according to the report.

What is less clear is whether competition has improved programs.

The first and most important step of the competitive sourcing process is to determine what should — and what should not — be opened to competition. Agencies must determine if a task is "inherently governmental." The term is unfortunate, but the issue it raises is essential.

There are some tasks that are just too important to be outsourced and that do not improve with competition. Griffin is correct to focus on research and development, a critically important subject for NASA and the country. It is an area that needs more attention generally and one that seems not to benefit from competition.

Griffin has provided few details about what his approach may mean. It seems that he is swimming against the current. But we give him credit for raising the subject.

To insource or to outsource? It is not an easy question to answer.

— Christopher J. Dorobek

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