Lawmakers probe outsourcing deal

A group of lawmakers has asked the National Imagery and Mapping Agency to put on hold its plans to outsource 600 information technology jobs to the private sector until the Defense Department reviews the deal.

At issue is whether the NIMA employees can perform the IT support work more cost effectively than two commercial companies that formed a joint venture to bid on the work.

Rather than have the work performed by government employees, NIMA opted earlier this year to award a contract to Chenega Technology Services Corp. and Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Communications Ltd., both owned by native Alaskans. According to some estimates, the contract could be worth as much as $2 billion over 15 years.

Usually, an agency considering contracting with a private-sector company to perform a function must use a "competitive process" to select the successful source. However, agencies are allowed by law to skip the competition process and award noncompetitive, sole-source contracts to companies with a majority ownership by native Alaskans.

NIMA's decision has the federal employees — most of those affected work in Missouri and Maryland — and their labor union, the American Federation of Government Employees, up in arms. The union has requested that Congress step in. "We think that any time we can call attention to the fact that the Pentagon is more interested in cutting corners than in cutting costs, that's a good thing," said Brendan Donaher, a policy analyst with AFGE.

The group of 11 lawmakers, led by House Minority Leader Richard Gep-hardt (D-Mo.), sent a letter May 4 to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asking that he halt NIMA's deal in order to review whether the agency will get its money's worth without competition. They also question whether the deal should be contracted out at all.

The letter maintains that, according to NIMA, conducting a cost comparison between the government workers and the native Alaskan-owned joint venture "poses an unacceptably high risk to the continuity of NIMA's mission.

"That is, NIMA management is concerned that a public/private competition might make more difficult the task of preserving the agency's reliable and experienced workforce of uniquely qualified employees," the lawmakers wrote. "This belief is actually a stronger argument against transferring the work to the private sector under any circumstances, whether through a public/private competition or a direct conversion."

Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Han-sen confirmed that Rumsfeld has received the letter, but as of May 15 he had not responded to it. A spokesman for one of the two companies, Arctic Slope Regional Corp. Communications, did not return phone calls.

NIMA spokeswoman Jennifer Laffley made no one available for comment, but instead provided a list of standard questions and answers about the pending deal, which indicated that NIMA expects to award a final contract in September.

The General Accounting Office has suggested that DOD may outsource up to $100 billion in contracts annually. And the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo May 9 requiring that 5 percent of contracts that could be performed by either government workers or the commercial sector be competed rather than sole-sourced.

In the end, it matters not whether government or commercial workers win a contract, but whether government gets the best possible deal, according to Sean O'Keefe, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget.

"I'm not sure that there's anything that particularly calls for or demands that it be outsourced, per se," O'Keefe said in a recent interview. "My view [is] you've accomplished 90 percent of the objective by the mere act of competitively sourcing it, determining what is the best means of delivery."

Diane Frank contributed to this article

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