Who manages contractors?

The Office of Management and Budget recently announced that another 537,000 federal jobs could be outsourced under the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998. Adding that to previous tallies, OMB now estimates two-thirds of 1 million federal jobs are candidates for heading over to the private sector. The rest of the federal workforce occupies jobs that are "inherently governmental" and cannot be outsourced.

I have been a federal employee, although I now work in the private sector. In all this talk about the virtues of outsourcing federal jobs, I think people are ignoring unhealthy and important unintended consequences.

No one seems to realize that when agencies heavily outsource activities, someone has to manage all those contracts. If no one is left but the "inherently governmentals," then it is those workers who must do that management. Although they may have been hired for a specialized expertise, they find themselves consumed with managing contractors, leaving little time to bring their skills to bear.

In some agencies, this condition has reached ridiculous levels. Workers at the GS-9 and GS-11 levels, fresh from college or graduate school, are managing multimillion-dollar contracts without the experience to understand the issues contractors are supposed to be addressing, let alone to manage contracts.

As a consultant, I once attended a conference where 20 highly skilled people addressed an urgent agency problem. After a while, I discovered there were only two federal employees in the room. The rest of us were a bunch of contractors sitting around talking to one another on the government's nickel. The agency was so heavily outsourced it could bring only minuscule staffing to focus on the problem.

Worse still, federal employees who spend so much time managing contractors never get a chance to do any real thinking about their "inherently governmental" decisions. They succumb to the temptation to let their contractors do the thinking for them. As every federal employee ought to know, the first words out of a contractor's mouth when presented with any new problem are: "Sure, we can do that for you." Contractors are businesspeople who generally see the government's problems as dollars and deliverables rather than tough issues and matters of professional responsibility.

One has to wonder whether all this outsourcing amounts to giving away the store and letting contractors run the government.

Long ago, I believed that the private sector was more efficient and effective than the government. Then, I found that all organizations, public or private, have inefficiencies, harbor deadwood personnel and avoid tough decisions. Now, I think the only difference between the private sector and government is that incompetence is more highly paid in the private sector.

Before going whole-hog on outsourcing federal jobs, let's examine its effects on the quality of our government.

Sprehe is president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc. in Washington, D.C. He can be reached at jtsprehe@jtsprehe.com.

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