The mainstream media buries influential procurement issues under controversy-driven hoopla.
The Washington Post ran a story July 5 with the headline “Government Short of Contracting Officers: Officials Struggle to Keep Pace With Rapidly Increasing Defense Spending.” In journalism lingo, the story was buried deep in the newspaper on page 8 of the E section.
That placement contrasts with the Post’s positioning of its coverage of Lurita Doan, administrator of the General Services Administration. The Post’s stories about Doan’s problems regularly appeared on the front page.
And the Post was not alone. The New York Times has published stories on government outsourcing and procurement. Vanity Fair’s March issue had a big piece on Science Applications International Corp., which the magazine identified as one of the “biggest, most powerful” of the “body shops” that “sells brainpower, including a lot of the ‘expertise’ behind the Iraq war.”
Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr. started a new blog, Government Inc., this month on WashingtonPost.com. O’Harrow’s biography on the blog describes him as a reporter “who focuses on government contracting, fraud, waste and abuse.”
We are thrilled to have media outlets covering government procurement. It’s an important issue that deserves attention. But there is more to government procurement than waste, fraud and abuse.
Mainstream publications have immense influence because they can define the debate. They can focus public attention on important issues. But they may be missing the big picture.
The shortage of contracting officers is an important issue. But there is the larger question of which tasks are inherently governmental and so important that they should not be outsourced.
The government used to employ all of its janitors. Now that work is contracted out because officials determined that janitorial service was not a core government mission. That was probably a good decision. But where do you draw the line?
That question is far less controversial than a $20,000 contract that has elicited much criticism of Doan — a contract that was never awarded. But the question of which functions are inherently governmental is one with great implications, and it’s one that people should debate.
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