As a career federal employee I am keenly aware of the Bush Administration’s outsourcing initiative. In case you don’t know it is, it means the Bush Administration would like to fire federal employees and hire contractors to do their work providing (they say) that they can justify a cost savings.
As you may recall I have discussed this topic before in an entry in January and an entry in May. What is new is that Congress is beginning to pay attention to this subject and it appears they are saying “Enough!” Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) managed to attach a rider to a House spending bill that would essentially require the Bush Administration to play by the old rules on outsourcing. What is surprising is that a Republican controlled House, virtually always in line with whatever the Administration proposes, deviated from the Bush’s position on this issue.
There are similar rumblings going on in the Senate too, although nothing like the language in this bill has emerged yet. The Bush Administration promises a veto of the bill if it gets to the President’s desk in its current form.
Naturally I have a vested interest in the outcome of this fight. I don’t believe for a minute that my job is any safer from outsourcing than anyone else’s. I have twenty years in the civil service, have consistently earned top performance ratings and generally take pleasure in my job. It would be nice to be treated with a little more dignity for my long years and hard work, but to the guys in the green eye shades I’m not really a person, just a statistic in a political game that affects real people who are often doing very good work.
Yes, certainly the perception exists that there are lazy and incompetent federal employees out there. And there are. There aren’t nearly as many as critics would like to believe. There are also lazy and incompetent contractors working for Uncle Sam out there. I see them all the time in my organization. In some cases they are goofing off because of the inability of the government to keep them busy. (We federal employees are very multitasked and increasingly we have to delegate rather than micromanage.) In others they simply ARE being lazy and they find checking their Yahoo! Mail far more engaging that the drudgery of doing their assigned tasks. So it cuts both ways. But in general, and I have had SOME experience in private industry, despite my 20 years in the government, I have not seen a correlation that people working in the federal government are any more or less efficient than our private industry brethren. Just like our private industry brethren, we are making do with less … a LOT less. I have seen our own staff shrink year after year. Year after year I take on more and more complicated projects from people who are retiring, transferred or moved on. When a guy in my office transferred to the Social Security Administration I got stuck with two of his projects, at no extra pay of course. His slot vanished so that we could make some arbitrary administrative goal about keeping down the size of government.
The resistance to outsourcing is increasing for a variety of reasons, but rest assured it’s not because federal employees alone are complaining. We’ve been doing that for years and it hasn’t stopped the trend. What it has resulted in are all sorts of gimmicks like early out retirements instead. Outright layoffs are relatively rare, which is better than most private sector employees receive.
But the real reason things are somewhat different now is that Congress is starting to figure it out: the government is about as outsourced as it can get. To use one metaphor, the “low hanging fruit” was picked off long ago. Now the ladders are way up in the apple trees and people are extended out on weak branches trying to grab the apples. In real life this would introduce a lot of risk and take a lot more effort to collect apples. The same thing is happening with outsourcing. It has reached the point where in most cases going through the effort is more costly than any imagined benefits and negates any marginal cost savings that would result.
For example The Washington Post reported that much of the National Parks Budget, which would have otherwise gone to desperately needed improvements to the parks infrastructure, was instead spent this year on numerous and costly outsourcing studies. Can we get rid of a handful of park archeologists and geologists and outsource them instead? We certainly could and there are beltway bandits spending gobs of taxpayer dollars to prove it in official looking reports. But Congress is finally paying some attention to these increasing bizarre outsourcing stories. It just doesn’t make that much sense, unless you are trying to pay off some political contributors, to throw some GS-12 archeologist out of work to save a couple thousand bucks. Certainly park visitors have a more enriching experience when someone who has been around a while can provide education and insight that some fly by night contractor cannot.
Enough already! Yes, if government takes on a new function let’s look carefully to see if it can be done more efficiently by the private sector. But trust me on this: there is not an agency in the federal government that hasn’t been combed from top to bottom numerous times by various administrations trying to find spurious savings on jobs that can be outsourced. The low hanging fruit was picked long, long ago. There may be an agency or two that somehow managed to hide a pocket of people, but they will be the rare exception. There are no more GS-2’s cleaning restrooms, or GS-5’s maintaining motor pools. It’s been years since I’ve seen a federal computer specialist like myself actually program a line of code. Computers have squeezed out almost all the administrative and secretarial staff. Even my office director, a GS-15 who likely makes $100K a year doesn’t qualify for a secretary. He has to type his own darn memos.
This outsourcing madness has reached its logical end. It’s time to stop pretending we are shrinking the cost of government by transferring duties from federal employees to contractors, and to admit the government has grown much, much bigger because politicians have hidden the true size of government in an expanding contractor community. This shell game is over and even Congress is realizing it. Let’s hope the Bush Administration emerges from its ideological hole and stops this nonsense that no longer saves taxpayers any money.