Keep expectations low

Much wringing of hands accompanied the revision of the rules for how agencies determine if they should outsource work currently conducted by federal employees. But the final impact that the revised A-76 rules will have on federal information technology jobs may be less than expected.

In releasing the revisions last week, outgoing Office of Management and Budget Director Mitchell Daniels Jr. claimed the government has "had far too few competitions and far too few competitors." But the new rules likely will do little to foster more competition, especially for federal IT programs.

In one change, agencies must now consider a combination of cost, technology and other best-value factors, not cost alone. But for the Defense Department, which accounts for the vast majority of A-76 competitions, that change will have no effect because by law the department must consider only the lowest cost.

As for civilian agencies, most of the A-76 competitions will be applied to the "low-hanging fruit" — the less complicated job functions such as janitorial services. Civilian agency managers will be less inclined to apply A-76 competitions to more complex IT programs, arguably inherently governmental in most cases.

That doesn't mean the Bush administration's attempt to apply competition to government work is unnecessary. Without metrics such as cost and value to measure how well government employees perform their jobs, there is the risk — and, as evidence points out, the likelihood — that agencies will give the public poor service at high cost. Indeed, the tide could be turning: The Internal Revenue Service last week announced an A-76 pilot project to test the feasibility of outsourcing the management of its desktop computing environment.

Still, experts on both sides of the debate say the revision is not broad enough to bring about wholesale change. And no amount of changes will alter the fact that agencies have little knowledge of their staffs' skills sets or the makeup of the infrastructure to support them, basic data needed to hold meaningful competitions. Until those issues are addressed, the revisions will not meet expectations.

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