The Thinker

Outsourcing Madness

News item: 150 federal workers rally at Freedom Plaza in Washington, D. C. to protest zealous efforts to “outsource” their jobs to the private sector.

I had no idea about this rally. I suspect if the word had gotten around there would have been a lot more people at the rally. But hey, it’s a start.

It’s the same everywhere in here in Fed World. Today in my vanpool those who work in the Department of Agriculture were noting their “All Hands” meeting today. The primary discussion of course is outsourcing. How many of these good and hard working federal employees, many of whom have been employed for dozens of years, will still have a job in a year? How high do you think their morale is while this process is underway?

Maybe the way to keep their job in this economy is to surrender and to find out what contracting agency will fill their jobs and apply to them. At least they’ll have the requisite experience for the job. Anyhow, if airline employees can be continually downsized why not federal employees? What is sauce for the goose is good for the gander after all. Umm, all this IS good, right? Taxpayers are going to get a great return for their tax dollar right? Think again.

In the process of moving from federal employee to contractor they may give up some of those little fringe benefits they took for granted, like more than a week or two of vacation a year, or health insurance, or a 401-K plan. But at least maybe they will be employed, although for likely far less than they make now. These new contracting executives will need their Mercedes Benz and their cushy offices. That will require the usual deal: charge the government more than the true cost of federal employees but caveat it with “Hey, if you don’t need them they can be easily terminated”, take 50% of the margin for “overhead” and give the rest, or less, to the employee. Federal employee numbers go down. Bush can claim he has reduced the size of the government and made the government more lean and efficient.

Now I’m certainly not saying that some contracting doesn’t make sense. It would make no sense to have civil servants build B-1 bombers. It didn’t make much sense 20 years ago when I started working in the government to have civil servants cleaning restrooms or maintaining an agency’s fleet of automobiles. There are jobs that are so generic that there is nothing the least bit “federal” about them. The crux of the matter is whether a job is “inherently governmental”. Over the years as the politically inspired outsourcing pressure has increased the line between what is inherently governmental has gone from dubious at best to outright silly.

The latest example that I read about is this attempt by the Department of the Interior to outsource grants management specialists. What does a grants management specialist do? Their job is to ensure that when the federal government doles out the dollars to accomplish some mission on behalf of the federal government that the money is used according to law. But apparently the Department of the Interior thinks “Hey, we can hire a contractor to see if our contractors are doing the job correctly.” This is lunacy. What the hell is more inherently governmental than this?

But outsourcing is just one example of dubious management in the federal government. The Bush Administration, like those before it, is convinced there are too many supervisors in the federal government. The solution is to reduce middle management and “flatten hierarchies”. In my agency we’ve become so flattened that management has basically no idea what I actually do and no time to monitor my work.

No, I am not kidding. I wish I were. We were reorganized recently. Of course we’re not going to get any new people to replace those who left because in addition to flatting hierarchies we want to give the appearance that the federal government is not growing too. My new supervisor is a GS-15 who was given the job in addition to his previous job of being the information technology security officer for the agency. What is he actually doing day to day? Think he’s managing the people below him? Think again. Mostly what he does is spend 80% of his time working on some departmental security initiative that keeps him out of the office or unavailable to manage during that time. This is what his bosses are telling him. So he has almost no time to know what any of us are doing.

In short the hierarchy has been flattened so much that accountability has been squeezed out! There is no time to manage people and balance the resources and work among us. But in reality my boss, through no fault of his own but simply through circumstances, really has no idea what I do beyond “project management”. When it comes time to do my employee evaluation, assuming he actually has time to read my accomplishments, he will find out what I did for him last year. Hopefully it will be in line with what he would have wanted me to do in the first place, if he had the time to tell me, which he won’t. He won’t have time to even think through the problem in the first place.

In reality there is no accountability in my organization. I come to work and do my job but I could just as easily sit at my desk and play solitaire all day because it is unlikely anyone would notice. In fact I do come to work and put in a solid day’s work, but even so I have no idea whether I am doing good or bad. My performance evaluation criteria are so generic it bears little or no resemblance to my effort. There is no clear expectation of what I am supposed to be doing in the first place. I just keep doing what I’ve been doing and perhaps naively volunteer to take on new tasks from time to time feeling I should be a “team player”. These new tasks generally show up as a result of talking with people or from phone calls.

One would hope that our executives would understand the dichotomy of what they expect from their managers. In short they expect the impossible. If you tell my manager to spend 80% of his time doing something other than his job, which has supervisor in the title, then he is not going to be able to manage us. If in addition you flatten hierarchies so much that even if he had the time he wouldn’t be able to manage our time effectively then the obvious conclusion is that you need more managers, not less. If a manager can’t manage the people under them then they can’t hold them accountable and employees’ productivity is likely being squandered.

It is time to acknowledge the obvious: you get the government you pay for. We’ve collapsed hierarchies too much; we need to add managers, not subtract them. We need not just figurehead managers, but real managers, trained in actual management who read books by Jack Welch. And our executives need to set their managers free so they can actually manage their people in alignment with organizational goals.

And as for outsourcing, it based on the notion that just about any task can be neatly packaged and handed off and doesn’t require any real governmental oversight except for remembering to renew the contract when it comes up. No one will admit that, of course, but that’s the naked reality.

That’s not management, folks.


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