Free nights at the Ritz-Carlton, wine-braised short ribs, take-home swag — you could imagine all this being par for the course for an annual bash at Google, Exxon Mobil or another major corporation. When General Services Administration employees enjoyed such perks on the taxpayer’s dime, however, it became a huge scandal.
But it shouldn’t come as a surprise that some government employees have embraced the free-wheeling ways of the private sector. The business of government has become big business, as Washington has moved from providing direct services to the public to doling out private contracts.
It’s a transformation that’s happened over many decades — one intended to streamline the government by limiting the size of the federal workforce, boosting private industry’s role and introducing innovations from the private sector. “Government should be citizen-centered, results-oriented and, wherever possible, market-based,” said George W. Bush during his 2000 presidential campaign, and he attempted to follow through in office.
But in certain pockets of the federal government, the push for private-sector efficiency has been eclipsed by a gross imitation of private-sector excess.
This month, top officials at the GSA resigned after a regional office spent more than $800,000 on a single conference in Las Vegas — an event that included the services of a mind reader and a clown. The irony of the scandal is that it came from an agency whose very purpose centers on handing out government contracts. In the process of giving out the government’s money, some GSA employees didn’t think twice about spending it on themselves.
The size of the executive branch has remained close to 2 million workers since the end of the Vietnam War, with a low of about 1.78 million in 2000 and a high of 2.25 million in 1985, according to the Office of Personnel Management. But during that same period, “the federal budget has exploded, [and] things we deliver has expanded exponentially,” says Paul Light, a professor at New York University who has written a book on the subject.
Rather than hiring more workers or using existing ones to carry out new federal activities directly — the way the government used to produce dentures for veterans, as Light recalls — Uncle Sam has instead doled out the money through the private sector. “The federal government should not compete against its citizens but rely on the commercial sector to supply products and services needed by the government,” said a directive from the Office of Budget and Management in 1966.
That has created not only a proliferation of government contractors — private-sector employees who sometimes work side by side with federal workers — but also government contracts to arrange for all that spending. Amid this transformation, the GSA has become one of the government’s most important middlemen: It’s responsible for helping other agencies buy the goods and services they need, overseeing $66 billion in annual federal spending and government property worth $500 billion. As its former chief of staff John Phelps explained in a 2006 speech, “GSA may be the biggest federal agency you never heard of.”