GAO: Forest Service falls down on competitive-sourcing job

The Forest Service did a poor job of competing government jobs between federal employees and the private sector and of reporting savings, according to a new report.

The Government Accountability Office said today that the Agriculture Department’s Forest Service lacked a strategic plan and guidance for its public/private competition for communications work, the Geospatial Service and Technology Center, and fleet management.

USDA officials told Congress the agency saved more than $38 million between 2004 and 2006. However they couldn’t tell GAO how they arrived at that figure or give supporting data to prove it’s correct, GAO said.

The Forest Service didn’t have complete and reliable cost data from those two years to show whether it complied with statutory spending limits on competitive sourcing and accurately reported savings to Congress, GAO found.

The service also excluded a number of costs that would have cut into the $38 million in savings, GAO said. For example, agency officials told GAO that they didn’t include about $40 million in information technology transition costs from the savings totals.

In addition, the Forest Service wasn’t clear on how to assess the overall effects that competitive sourcing would have on the agency’s duties, such as putting out wildfires, according to the report.

“Outsourcing a large number of federal jobs to the private sector could, over time, reduce the number of available responders,” GAO said.

GAO told the Forest Service to make sure it understands the overarching effects of trimming the number of employees and making sure the savings it reports to Congress is realistic. It also recommends developing clear guidance to define inherently governmental and core commercial duties.

Forest Service officials generally agreed with GAO, but said they complied with the Office of Management and Budget’s rules on what should be included and excluded from the savings figures.

Nevertheless, the agency told GAO it lacks an overall plan for assessing the cumulative effects of competitive sourcing, although it examines the effects on a study-by-study basis.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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