Inherently governmental: Still a trick question

Readers identify long-standing issues in trying to rebalance the workforce

Call it inherently governmental redux.

Since the early months of 2009, Obama administration officials have been telling contractors, Congress and anyone else who will listen that agencies need to begin weaning themselves off contractors, hiring new staff members and bringing work back in-house.

The only catch is deciding what work should be insourced and which legitimately might be outsourced. In short, which jobs are inherently governmental?

It’s a trick question, of course. The term has been around for decades, but its meaning — as defined by the ever-changing cast of players in the executive branch and Congress — constantly shifts depending on the political climate.

The current wordsmith-in-chief is Daniel Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, whose job it is to provide agencies with guidelines and parameters. In late April, Gordon told an industry group that he understood that the question of whether a job is inherently governmental often cannot be answered with a simple yes or no.

On the other hand, agencies clearly need to rebalance the workforce so that fewer contractors are so intimately involved with the government’s decision-making process, he said.

Gordon’s speech received mixed reviews from readers, reflecting the full spectrum of arguments for and against outsourcing that have been made for decades.

Reader Comments

[Editor’s note: Reader comments have been edited for length, clarity and style.]

Pony Up

Good for Daniel Gordon. I used to buy that claptrap about the private sector being more efficient than the public. Not true really, unless you figure Goldman Sachs was far more efficient in fleecing investors than any government agency would ever have been. But then, we have to abide by ethics rules, too. The next time Sen. Snort or Congressman Hogtrough starting flinging that bull about how much less it would cost to privatize some government functions, pin them down them on the supposed savings. There usually aren't any. I don't disagree that we should limit government, but we should also be adults enough to fully fund those limited government services we agree we need.

— The Curmudgeon

Hold Your Horses

Cut the scope of the government and you can easily cut down the outsourcing. The problem is the rapid growth of government and government spending. Just look at all the stimulus money: It went primarily to contractors. Stop that and you will find it a lot easier to cut back on the government work being done by contractors.

— Anonymous

No Entrenchment

Contracting, when used, should be used for its intended purpose: deliver the service or product then move on. Anything requiring years of support should be done by an employee of the government. That said, the government would be well served to pull more private-sector employees into their ranks, and with the economy as it is, now is the time.

— Anonymous

Who Cares?

Forget figuring this out by who writes the check the employee receives. Rather, look at what the government needs to make sure its job gets done. In some cases, it needs a very small cadre, and in other cases, it may need to do it all. Counting heads by who pays the employee is only going to perpetuate the pendulum and ultimately undermine the capability of our government to lead domestically and internationally.

— Anonymous

Revolving Doors

It is about time to stop this swinging pendulum — and this revolving glass door through which retired officials leave and get hired by one of the big consulting firms. Or they open their own gig and receive multimillion-dollar awards from their friends on the inside and run programs for years without adding any value. This behavior is seen among retired members of Congress, the civilian agencies and the armed forces. Serving the country in different capacities does not give one the right to steal in broad daylight from hard-working, law-abiding Americans. Obviously, a small minority of female-owned businesses does not stand a chance to survive in the unethical dealings environment.

— S

History Lesson

If you want to understand the concept of inherently governmental and outsourcing vs. insourcing, read Chapter 12 of Machiavelli's “The Prince,” in which he describes the kinds of soldiery. Just replace the word “mercenary” with “contractor” and “war” with “work” and then you will understand. There is a reason that Machiavelli has been taught in management courses for years and years.

— JLynne

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Reader comments

Fri, Jun 18, 2010 Ed

These were good - but they fail to address an interesting phenomenon I've noticed. In the DOD, the contractor workforce was fed primarily by ex-military ex WWII, Korean, and Vietnam. As long as we had a supply of ex-military, we had contractors that understand processes and put the government's interest before their company's if push came to shove. As the number of military in the contractor ranks started to decrease because the ex-military were not available in the quantities needed, the percentage of folks that had no experience and less commitment to the U.S. government increased. In the next few years, I think it will be able to swing back the other way as current veterans start to go to work for contractors. I'm not saying it should, just that it can.

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