DHS draws flak for review of services contracts

Some suspect ulterior motives

The Homeland Security Department’s new mandatory reviews of all professional services contracts worth more than $1 million are an attempt to address a longstanding, thorny issue, but some experts think there might be an underlying motive: aid the Obama administration's push to return many outsourced jobs to the government.

John Chierichella, a government contracts attorney at Sheppard Mullin Richter and Hampton law firm, said the department's effort strikes him as an attempt to create negative reports on contractors. During the past few years, the government pushed to reduce the federal workforce, a process accelerated by the George W. Bush administration. The government’s severe cuts on its own acquisition staff created the need Obama sees to bring those jobs back in-house, Chierichella said.

DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced the reviews May 28 to identify inappropriate contracts for inherently governmental work. Historically, this has been an area ripe for reforms, according to experts in federal contracting.

“I think it is a wonderful idea,” said Scott Amey, general counsel for the Project on Government Oversight watchdog group. “But it will be very difficult.”

Identifying inherently governmental work requires a detailed look at the tasks that employees are performing, he said. “It is a fine line,” Amey said. “I think crossing the line happens more than we would expect.”

“The devil is in the definitions,” Chierichella said.

Napolitano said DHS will begin immediately conducting mandatory reviews of all new professional services contracts worth more than $1 million, including renewals of existing contracts. The aim is to ensure that contracts are not being awarded for inherently governmental functions, the jobs that only federal employees should perform.

The additional review "adds a new level of rigor to the DHS contracting process,” she said in a news release.

The new procedure is part of a workforce assessment to improve management, which is among several efficiency initiatives that began in March in the department.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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