Outsourcing, competitive sourcing, or A-76 … call it by any name, but the federal government continues to allow contractors to play a major role in how the government serves the public. Yesterday’s hearing by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee entitled “Is DHS Too Dependent on Contractors to Do the Government’s Work?,” tackled the very important issue of whether the government has lost control of itself.
The fear is that contractors are performing inherently governmental functions that must be performed by government employees. Federal regulations list some government activities that must be performed by civil servants and other activities that can be performed by contractor employees. A problem arises when contractor employees cross the faint line between those activities.
The Government Accountability Office report (pdf) that was the subject of yesterday’s hearing found that in fiscal year 2005, the DHS spent $1.2 billion contracting for professional and management support services that closely support the performance of inherently governmental functions. The report listed the following activities as “high risk” of approaching the line of work that must be performed by government employees:
• Acquisition support
• Budget preparation
• Developing or interpreting regulations
• Engineering and technical services
• Intelligence services
• Policy development
• Reorganization and planning
How many people know that contractor employees are writing agency budgets and creating policy?
While contracting for such services has helped a brand-new agency like the DHS fulfill its needs for staff and expertise, the GAO found the DHS comes up short in making sure that vital agency decisions are not being influenced by contractor judgments and that contractors are performing as required. The report highlighted the disturbing example of the Coast Guard hiring a contractor to help determine whether DHS jobs should be contracted out. A conflict of interest? We think so!
By relying too heavily on contractors, agencies like the DHS run the risk of eroding institutional knowledge. The government also risks paying too much for services or not receiving the best possible services for the money. More importantly, the government loses control over its own decision making. Service to the public and not to private interests should always be the goal. We are unsure that companies like Enron, Worldcom, and many large federal contractors think the same way.
-- Neil Gordon and Scott Amey