Congress mulls changes to 'inherently governmental' activities

businesspeople running track

In what they say could become part of a larger effort to reform federal procurement practices in the coming year, lawmakers are considering reopening government/commercial competition for goods and services.

In a July 8 hearing, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Government Operations Subcommittee explored how processes delineated in the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76 might be revised to lift a moratorium on public/private competition that began in 2009 under an omnibus appropriations act.

The circular requires agencies to prepare inventories of inherently governmental activities that should be performed by federal employees and those that the private sector could handle.

Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) characterized the hearing as an initial look at how to open those competitions again to help the government save money on goods and services.

"This is about finding the right balance in public/private competition through the A-76 process," he said at the hearing. "Under current law, public/private competitions are prohibited. We want to learn from past efforts and hopefully begin anew the discussion in the lead-up to a new administration."

He added that the discussion about Circular A-76 could lead to a wider review of federal procurement under the next administration.

Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the subcommittee's ranking member, said revising A-76 could lead to better contract management for increasingly technical IT projects. He added that the practice of insourcing by government agencies is no better than the practice of outsourcing to industry.

"One is intrinsically not better than the other," he said, adding that decisions should be based on agencies' needs and capabilities.

However, Connolly said effectively managing big technology contracts has become essential to federal IT efforts. Sometimes, the government's tech know-how lags behind that of the commercial sector, which means the federal workforce needs stronger contract management skills.

Witnesses at the hearing included Angela Styles, a partner at Washington law firm Crowell and Moring. She revised Circular A-76 when she was administrator of OMB's Office of Federal Procurement Policy during the George W. Bush administration.

"It's a travesty that public/private competition has been stalled for eight years," Styles said. Efforts to renew the competitive framework have been blocked "by special interests" interested in protecting federal jobs, she added.

Styles touted the Freedom from Government Competition Act, a 2015 bill sponsored by Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.), as a way to end the moratorium. She said the competitions can save the government billions of dollars a year regardless of whether work is performed by government employees or the private sector because the process makes agencies more carefully consider how they're getting goods and services and the associated costs.

John Palatiello, president of the Business Coalition for Fair Competition, told lawmakers that some agencies have indeed reconsidered how they receive services in many areas, including IT.

For instance, the U.S. Geological Survey has transitioned from being an in-house map-production agency that often duplicated the efforts of private firms to become an agency that taps mapping companies for their data while focusing its employees on standards and coordination.

In contrast, Palatiello said, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration continues to replicate what it might get from the private sector for less.

"NOAA still does hydrographic surveys in-house" when the same or more technically advanced capabilities are readily available from companies, he said.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a senior staff writer at FCW, whose beat focuses on acquisition, the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Energy.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


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