Experts redefining government-only work

Lawmakers, officials are working on a new definition for inherently governmental functions.

As Bush administration officials try to define precisely the work that only government employees should perform, not being able to hire more of those employees could create serious problems, officials said Dec. 10.

The acquisition workforce is a major challenge for the government, particularly when considering a new definition of its work, said Cathy Garman, professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, who spoke on a panel about acquisition reforms.

Concerned about the perception that contractors were performing inherently governmental work, Congress told the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) in the fiscal 2009 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 3001) to rewrite the definition of that government work.

“We have too many definitions out there,” which allows agencies to pick the definition that best suits their needs at that time, Garman said. “We’re trying to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak.”

However, in writing that definition, officials must consider its effects on the acquisition workforce, experts say.

Agencies must be adequately staffed to perform inherently governmental work, such as overseeing contractors. Also, federal employees need to know how to do essential work even though the work may not be inherently governmental to retain certain core capabilities as a matter of national policy, the armed services panel wrote earlier this year in a report related to the authorization bill.

However, changing the definition and other acquisition reforms hinges on enhancing the capacity of the workforce plus bringing in more people to fill empty slots, Garman said. “But our [committee] members aren’t going to sit around and wait” for the positions to be filled and the employees to be fully trained before reforming the acquisition system, she said.

Robert Burton, former deputy administrator at  the OFPP and now partner at the Venable law firm, said contractors and government employees sitting side by side won’t disappear.

“The federal government simply has to rely on the private sector,” because the government doesn’t have enough people to do the work, said Burton, who was on the panel. Due to the shortage of people, he said broadening the definition of inherently governmental functions would have disastrous effects on agencies.

The solution is improving management of the blended workforce, not erasing it, he said.

The major obstruction to enlarging the workforce is the hiring process, which is slow, cumbersome and time-consuming, Garman and Burton agreed.

Most applicants can’t wait nine months to learn if they have a job, Burton said.

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