A competition crisis?

The Bush administration has put in place all the makings of an identity crisis for 2003.

A string of seemingly unrelated policy decisions in the past two years raises fundamental questions about how the government will do its job in the years ahead.

The primary issue: Who should do the work of government — contractors or employees? This is not simply a philosophical discussion, but a matter of pressing concern for all federal agencies.

Administration officials have stated publicly that for any service that is not inherently governmental, the public and private sectors should compete for the opportunity to perform that service — what the Bush administration calls competitive sourcing.

But competitive sourcing quickly becomes tangled with such issues as information technology and project management training, employee retention and broader visions of civil service reform.

The administration's policies in those areas must be developed or refined to support its commitment to shifting government work to the private sector.

Managing a team of contractors, for example, is a different challenge from managing in-house staff, experts say. Federal chief information officers already are concerned that many of their senior staff members lack the skills to manage large programs. Outsourcing only exacerbates that problem.

And highly qualified managers are in high demand everywhere, making it tough for agencies to hire and keep them.

The Bush administration's success in rolling back some civil service protections for Homeland Security Department employees has many people wondering if similar changes are in store governmentwide. The loss of traditional protections, though, could further impair the government's ability to maintain its workforce, especially in IT, where skilled workers have other options.

The administration cannot have a split personality in this area, promoting more competition for government work yet not giving agencies the guidance and resources they need. It's a resolution for 2003 that officials simply cannot afford to ignore.

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