Union: Too much discretion in outsourcing will come with a price

The Office of Federal Procurement Policy recently issued guidance to agencies on managing inherently governmental and critical functions. Senior writer Matthew Weigelt talked with two experts to get their take on what the term means and how they think the policy will affect public- and private-sector workers.

Colleen Kelley is national president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 150,000 employees at 31 agencies and departments. Her comments are below. Click here to see what Robert Burton, deputy OFPP administrator during the George W. Bush administration and now a partner at Venable law firm, had to say on the topic.

FCW: How would you define the term “critical function”?

Kelley: Our long-standing position has been, and continues to be, that anything that’s a critical government function — as well as anything that’s closely associated — is one that should be performed by federal employees. And even the OFPP letter acknowledges that a critical function could also be inherently governmental.

If it’s critical, it’s inherently governmental, and it should not be done by anyone other than federal employees. We think that because if something is labeled as critical, it is inextricably linked to the agency’s mission. And if it’s that inextricably tied, then it should be in the hands of trained and accountable federal employees, not anybody else.

FCW: If federal employees don’t have the expertise to manage a critical function, will the work go back to a contractor?

Kelley: I guess that presupposes that federal employees don’t already have the substantive knowledge and skills they need to perform some of these functions. I don’t start the conversation there. I think probably in many cases they already do.

Even if they needed to acquire [those skills], I’m confident that federal employees could perform those tasks for the government as well as anybody else. Again, it seems to me the problem is that there just are not enough federal employees doing this work.

But I would not like to see [the OFPP] policy letter used by agencies to decide that they can still contract out a critical function. I think it’s the wrong direction to go in — to train federal employees to do the work and then only have them manage or oversee contractors who would later do the work.

I would think once you build the in-house expertise, you would want to use it.

FCW: In the coming years, how will decisions about critical functions affect the federal workforce?

Kelley: I think that depends in large part on how agencies exercise their discretion to identify something as inherently governmental or as a critical function.

If they abuse that discretion or if they miscalculate the agency’s ability to control its mission and operations in an effort to contract out as much as possible, they run the very serious risk of a significant loss of institutional knowledge, skill and experience that will hurt the agency and the public.

An agency’s loss of critical capabilities is devastating to the public interest and very difficult to undo.

Although OFPP has established certain requirements for agencies to avoid over-reliance on contractors and guarantee appropriate oversight, I remain concerned about the ability of the Office of Management and Budget to monitor how agencies are interpreting these requirements and to enforce them.

FCW: How will decisions about critical functions affect contractors in the long run?

Kelley: Again, it’s very difficult to look into the future on a subject like this, but the guidance contemplates a more actively supervised contractor workforce.

Although I have serious questions about whether the process will work as outlined on paper, OMB must be hoping that it will lead to closer collaboration and fewer misunderstandings between agencies and contractors.

Click here to see what Robert Burton had to say on the topic.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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Reader comments

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 Fairfax, VA

I agree that institutional knowledge is lost by contracting out critical functions. However, with the regular turnover I see in the agencies I support as a contractor, the contractor is the ONLY way knowledge will be passed on and that ensures that the organization learns and does not repeat previous mistakes. The government MUST be more aggressive in its HR practices in holding personnel accountable for their performance. Over the last 12 years as a contractor, I have seen a disturbing lack of proper management of government employees while their has been, in most cases, a microscope on the contractor. I like the accountability and focus on contract performance. If you are not performing and meeting the intent of the contract, please dismiss the contractor. How about we do that for government employees?

Tue, Oct 25, 2011 Kyle

Completely agree. Also Kelley's point is not a what's best for America point, it is a what's best to increase the size of my union point. There are thousands of examples of critical work being done effectively by contractors, managed by USG. I'm a bit tired of Unions taking advantage of the country. So are all my neighbors, even the ones that are forced to work for a Union, most of which would prefer not to.

Tue, Oct 25, 2011

This sounds like typical GSA employee who says no one else can do all the paper work I do. Bottom line we get over charged by our own agencies so they can meet there quotas. Even the private industries no to charge more because they say that is how goverment-GSA wants them to bid on jobs. That is where we get fleecing of America.

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