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A Challenge to Esprit at Army Corps

By Stephen Barr
Thursday, April 26, 2007

It is no longer business as usual in the government, as a recent job competition at the Army Corps of Engineers shows.

When complete, the corps will have dramatically cut its technology workforce, will be operating in a partnership with giant defense contractor Lockheed Martin and will be striving to produce up to $1 billion in savings over six years.

Such job competitions, known as competitive sourcing, or A-76 in federal budget offices, have been pushed by the Bush administration as a way to determine whether certain types of work can be done at lower cost. The practice has been in use for decades, but the administration's effort to increase the number and types of job competitions has roiled large parts of the federal workforce.

Most job competitions take time and involve numerous budget and legal considerations, as was the case at the corps.

The agency handles various engineering projects, from construction on Army and Air Force bases to flood control along rivers. It has about 35,000 employees across the nation, working from 65 offices, labs and centers.

For years, each major office has had its own technology staff, buying and installing computers, keeping networks running and helping employees with desktop problems. Across the country, about 1,300 federal employees and 1,500 contract workers provided the technology services.

But that staffing model was challenged in June 2004, when the corps launched a job competition and put the work up for bid.

Last week, an in-house team of employees was declared the winner, beating back a bid from Northrop Grumman, officials announced. If Northrop Grumman had won, it would have been in charge of the technology and probably would have offered jobs to some of the federal employees.

Winning, however, required the in-house team to cut costs and shed jobs. The new workforce will consist of about 520 government employees and 350 contract workers -- an overall reduction of more than half, Ray Navidi, the strategic sourcing manager for the corps, said.

The winners will get a year to phase in their operations in a new organization called ACE-IT (short for Army Corps of Engineers Information Technology). They were awarded a five-year contract, with possible extensions of up to three years. The contract is worth about $500 million, although calculations are not final.

The dramatic reduction in technology employees at the corps, Navidi said, has been made possible by the in-house team's decision to centralize and standardize operations. ACE-IT will be headquartered in Vicksburg, Miss., where the corps has about 3,000 employees.

The centralized operation will do away with duplicate or redundant jobs that were spread across field offices. For example, instead of "some 60 odd help desks, there will be only one help desk handling things," Navidi said.

The new organization also will help standardize equipment. Instead of having different types of desktop computers in each field office, the corps will buy in bulk and put the same desktop into each office. That will save money and help create replacement cycles that should reduce maintenance costs, he said.

In drawing up its bid, the in-house team solicited proposals from companies that had provided computer services to the corps in the past. After weighing half a dozen options, the in-house team selected Lockheed Martin as a partner. That will allow the new organization to quickly add staff during a crisis like Hurricane Katrina and reduce personnel once the "surge capacity" is no longer needed, Navidi said.

But the corps also is retaining some control over its technology. Plans call for 72 of the most experienced employees to work in a continuing government organization, which will provide oversight and intervene if the ACE-IT has trouble delivering on its promises.

"We are maintaining a core competency," Navidi said. "We know what we are getting from our contract partners. We know what we have paid for."

The job competition has created "a significant amount of angst among the employees," said Gordon Taxer, president of Local 97 of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers. "Their jobs are on the line," he said. "It has been a real tough year on them, and the anxiety is not over."

Navidi agreed that "it is a hard thing on employees," but he said the corps has a transition plan that should avoid layoffs. Technology employees in positions being eliminated will have a chance to work for Lockheed Martin or transfer to jobs elsewhere in the corps and the Army, he said.

"I think we will be able to take care of most of the employees on board."

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