By Spencer S. Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 17, 2007
At the Department of Homeland Security, contract employees help write job descriptions for new headquarters workers. Private contractors also sign letters that officially offer employment. And they meet new government hires on their first day on the job.
About the only thing they do not do, a critical new congressional audit concludes, is swear in DHS employees.
Across several of DHS's most troubled projects, including delayed programs to replace the Coast Guard's fleet and to issue secure credentials to port workers, contractors are so enmeshed in DHS's work that they oversee other contractors. Some are assigned work that involves awarding future business, setting policy or drawing up plans and reorganizations, according to the Government Accountability Office, Congress's audit arm.
"Plainly put, we need to know who is in charge at DHS -- its managers and workers, or the contractors," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said in a written statement. "This heavy reliance on contractors raises the risk that DHS is not creating the institutional knowledge needed to be able to judge whether contractors are performing as they should, and at a fair price."
Lieberman plans to hold a hearing on the report's findings before the Senate homeland security committee today.
Independent analysts have increasingly warned in recent years that the government's growing reliance on private firms threatens to undermine agencies' decision-making, a risk the audit found was heightened in DHS's case by its complex 2003 start-up and the rapid expansion of its workload.
GAO investigators wrote that DHS's practices raise "the risk that government decisions may be influenced by, rather than independent from, contractor judgments," and that DHS could lose control over and accountability for its decisions.
DHS officials said the department began addressing GAO's concerns even before the report was done, plans staffing studies to set targets for the right mix of government and contractor workers, and is tightening acquisitions training and requirements on contractors. The last objective will be very difficult to achieve, DHS said, offering no timeline for completion. But spokesman Russ Knocke added, "There should be no uncertainty about our appreciation for and commitment to being good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
"This objective will be very difficult to achieve, and it is far too early to place . . . progress on a timeline for completion," he wrote.
While the Pentagon is by far the largest government buyer, DHS ranks third and has depended heavily on private companies. In 2006 alone, DHS spent $15.7 billion on goods and services, including more than $5 billion on management and professional support services.
In their study, GAO investigators found that of 117 contracts issued by three large DHS agencies, the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration and the Office of Procurement Operations, more than half called for outside firms to support inherently governmental work.
For example, according to the GAO and the Senate committee, DHS's procurement office awarded $42.4 million to Booz Allen Hamilton to provide services to the department's intelligence unit, including formulating its budget and policies, managing its technology procurements and even providing analysis of intelligence threats.
Elsewhere, DHS paid $2.1 million to MicroSystems Integration to help plan and reorganize its $24 billion fleet management effort, which has yielded four major classes of ships with design flaws. TSA paid $7.9 million to BearingPoint to provide strategic planning and legislative support, among other things, for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program, which, after five years, is now only beginning to produce secure IDs for 800,000 workers.
John Jaeger, president of Your Recruiting, of Fairfax, said his firm received a $4.9 million contract in 2006, part of nearly $20 million Your Recruiting has received for helping DHS fill an estimated 2,600 non-senior executive service headquarters positions. Jaeger estimated that his firm has helped DHS hire 5,000 workers since 2003.
But he said Your Recruiting was involved only in operations, not policy -- drafting job descriptions, for example, and sending initial offer letters to people in about half the 45-day period the federal government sets as a goal. The company never performed work that only government can do, he said.
"We did the orientation, but we didn't do the swearing-in," he said.
Citing decisions since the 1990s to shrink the federal workforce, Jaeger said, "Don't blame contractors for stepping in and filling a void that cannot be filled by government employees because there aren't enough of them."