A go-slow approach

The momentum to outsource information technology programs — and the jobs that go with them — is picking up. But before agencies rush to the conclusion that the private sector can do the work more efficiently and better and that outsourcing is the way to stretch tight budgets, a careful analysis of the benefits and costs is needed now more than ever.

That's particularly true of the Army's latest outsourcing effort. Army Secretary Thomas White wrote in a memo this month that the service plans to review 200,000 jobs that it has classified as encompassing duties that are not core Army responsibilities. More than 53,000 of the identified jobs are related to acquisition, logistics and technology, and more than 12,000 are in the chief information officer's office.

Officials will evaluate whether Army employees or private contractors can best perform individual jobs. And Congress will have its say, because lawmakers will be concerned about losing jobs in their home districts and states. Of course, not all of the jobs will be outsourced. In the Army's so-called second wave of outsourcing, which is still under way, 13,000 jobs have been considered for outsourcing, but only 375 — less than 3 percent — have actually been contracted out.

When deciding whether to outsource jobs to the private sector, agency officials must define core competencies and determine how to measure the benefits and costs of outsourcing. That's a tricky undertaking. For one thing, even the most common-sense approach can cause unforeseen problems. Mistakes may not be significant when you're making widgets, but for the Army, mistakes can cost lives.

The Army appears to be taking a cautious approach to outsourcing, judging by its decision to keep the majority of its jobs in-house so far. Overall, government IT management is improving, thanks to procurement and management reforms passed in the late 1990s. Much still needs to be done, and many job functions can be performed by the private sector. But the go-slow approach to outsourcing is a prudent one to take. n

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