Opposition in union

The House Government Reform Committee recently voted Rep. Tom Davis' Services Acquisition Reform Act out of committee. That is good news because the bill is a step forward in the effort to create a more modern, businesslike procurement system and to prepare government contracting professionals to work as the government's business leaders in crafting good deals for taxpayers.

The bad news is that the bill was voted out of committee on a straight party-line vote with Democrats voting against it. Why has improving the procurement system become a source of partisan divide?

Democrats are being driven by the opposition of federal employee unions to modernization of the procurement system.

Why are the unions involved in this issue? That's a good question. Whether or not one agrees with them, in the areas of outsourcing and civil service reform, the unions are engaged in issues that clearly concern their members and the positions they are taking are fully understandable.

But why procurement? Even federal unions can't oppose all outsourcing. (They don't want government employees to manufacture the computers the government uses, do they?) And one would think the unions have an interest in a government that functions effectively because a government that works poorly is not a government that creates job security for union members or fills anyone's aspirations for public service. Furthermore, I am confident that the vast majority of federal employee union members, whether they are procurement professionals or users of the system, support the procurement reforms of the past decade.

The answer, I think, is not pretty. The unions, for understandable reasons, are bitter foes of the Bush administration's competitive sourcing initiative. Before this initiative, federal employee unions stayed out of general procurement policy issues. Since this question has heated up, federal unions have started becoming involved in procurement. The problem is that opposition to outsourcing gives them an irreducible conflict of interest with regard to proposals to improve the system: the better procurement functions, the more attractive outsourcing becomes, and the worse it functions, the less attractive.

This result, of course, is not in anyone else's interest, and it surely shouldn't be in the interest of Democrats, who, the last time I heard, care a lot about getting government to work right so it can fulfill its important public purposes. Given federal unions' conflict of interest, we should assume that whatever procurement proposals they oppose are likely to be good ones for a healthy procurement system, and vice versa.

Democrats should advocate the kind of high-performance government that procurement and other management reformers seeks. They should shun the scorched-earth procurement policies of the federal unions.

Kelman is a professor of public management at Harvard University's Kennedy School and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@ harvard.edu.


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