When is a position inherently governmental?

One-size-fits-all rules and definitions that direct all agencies on what jobs are, in fact, inherently governmental functions don’t work, experts say.

Acquisition experts clearly described inherently governmental functions to a defense procurement commission today: They are undoubtedly blurry.

The experts told the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan that one-size-fits-all rules and definitions for categorizing government jobs don’t work because the concept of an inherently governmental function is unclear.

“You don’t want to be boxed in” when making these decisions, said former congressman Christopher Shays, co-chairman of the contracting commission.

An inherently governmental function refers to a job that only a federal employee should do, nor should it be outsourced. For example, only a federal employee can sign a contract on the government's behalf that obligates the expenditure of tax money.

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Experts say a contractor in an inherently governmental function might be able to unduly influence the government toward a course of action.

The commission’s June 18 hearing centered on answering the question of whether private security contractors are performing inherently governmental functions when they are in or outside a war zone. Similarly, some experts have asked whether agencies should keep from outsourcing information technology systems and IT services because they are critical to whether an agency meets its mission.

Al Burman, former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) inside the Office of Management and Budget and now president of Jefferson Solutions, said agency officials should decide whether a job is an inherently governmental function based on the circumstances.

As for security contractors in war zones, the government should use government employees if the agency has them, several members of the panel said. Outside those situations, the security jobs can be outsourced, as they often are.

“Everything is different in an active combat zone,” said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council.

For security work and other jobs where the definition of inherently governmental is questionable, agencies should ask whether the work is a "critical function," another new concept, Burman said.

Currently, OFPP officials are working on clarifying the concept of inherently governmental function, as they proposed a policy letter in March. The proposal offers questions for agency officials to ask when faced with figuring out if a job is inherently governmental. OFPP also offered two other terms: “closely associated with an inherently governmental function” and “critical function.” Each is another step further away from the government employee-only positions.

These closely associated and critcial functions have become important as they help government officials decide where they should focus their employees. Federal agencies are working to build up their workforces so they don't rely so much on contractors to accomplish their mission.


About the Author

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

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Reader comments

Sun, Feb 20, 2011

You would think with the economy doing so bad that Americans stationed overseas on U.S. bases would be able to find work? Well, there have been outsourcing of what was once called Inherently Government Positions to the cheaper foreign workforce. Am at a location where we have over 200 american wifes who husbands are serving and dying for our country but they can not find a job on the U.S. installation because all jobs that use to be Inherently government positions are being filled by foregners without reqards to rules, regulations or force security issues. It's damn right scary. Now wonder the enemy is winning!

Tue, Sep 7, 2010 D. Gib

The issue now that is affecting so many men and women in the country is the procedure now in place by the administration called Insourcing. Jobs not considered Inherently Governmental are being taken over and the contractors simply fired with no regard. Privte Security and Firefighters are terminated and replaced by federal civil service. These positions are not considered governmental and no required circular A76 hearings are being conducted. The aftermath of increased Unemployment, lack of medical access and the increased admission of more to the State Aid Rolls are not, in my opinion being considered.

Tue, Jun 22, 2010 Puregoldj Washington, DC

Actually, Erich does not go back far enough. The trend started very strongly in the 1980s, with Ronald "the government is the source of all problems" Reagan, who claimed that the private sector by definition does everything better and more efficiently. Government offices were emptied of all technical people, and you often had things like a "Systems Engineering" office that had nobody with a technical degree. I left the government myself in the mid-80s in large part because I saw no future given the trends. It is true that the trend continued in the 1990s as Erich described, but he has only the second part of the story.

Mon, Jun 21, 2010

I agree with Erich. I currently work on an IT project that is 80% contractors and am being managed by a team of contractors. Each contractor manager is managing on average 4 people. Can you say top heavy with contractors? OH FYI...what do the few civilian employees do ... the menial work that their contractor staff doesn't want to do.

Mon, Jun 21, 2010 Erich Darr

It appears that the author forgets that until the '90s these jobs were performed almost exclusively by military and civilians. Only after private industry lobbied government to outsource did the government shed the government employees that were performing these jobs. It stands to reason that the government now has insufficient trained personnel to perform this work.

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