Fighting Fire With the Wrong Sector?

Forest Service outsourcing plans, criticized by yesterday's GAO report, could put nearly two-thirds of the agency's workforce into job competitions with the private sector.
Forest Service outsourcing plans, criticized by yesterday's GAO report, could put nearly two-thirds of the agency's workforce into job competitions with the private sector. (By Bryan Kelsen -- Associated Press)
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By Stephen Barr
Friday, February 22, 2008

The Government Accountability Office faulted outsourcing projects at the Forest Service in a report released yesterday, prompting renewed calls for more scrutiny of the Bush administration's effort to contract out federal jobs, a plan known as competitive sourcing.

The Forest Service does not have a realistic long-term plan for determining which agency jobs should be given to the private sector and does not have reliable data to back up claims of cost savings, the GAO said.

In addition, outsourcing substantial numbers of Forest Service jobs to the private sector could, over time, reduce the agency's ability to fight fires in the wilderness and to respond to emergencies such as Hurricane Katrina.

"Congress needs to take a long, hard look at the administration's competitive sourcing agenda after such a damning report," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said. He released the report with Sen. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.), who said the administration "played fast and free with the facts in providing a different picture than the reality."

As a general rule, federal agencies are supposed to rely on the private sector to perform work that can be easily obtained in the commercial marketplace, such as computer maintenance and cafeteria services. In 2001, the Bush administration began urging agencies to put more civil service jobs up for bid by contractors as a way to lower or better manage costs.

Federal unions have lobbied on Capitol Hill to stop such outsourcing, and a number of annual appropriations bills, including one that covers the Forest Service, have restricted the practice.

But the curbs have not stopped the Agriculture Department and the Office of Management and Budget from ordering the Forest Service to push ahead on outsourcing, the GAO report suggests.

According to the GAO, the Forest Service plans to consider putting nearly two-thirds of the agency's workforce into job competitions against the private sector.

The success of such a "massive undertaking" will hinge on clear guidelines and "a strategy to assess the cumulative effect that outsourcing a large number of federal jobs could have on its firefighting capability. Unfortunately, the Forest Service has none of these in place," the GAO concluded.

The Forest Service has about 37,000 full-time employees. About 10,000 hold a job related to firefighting, and another 20,000 are certified to fight fires and respond to national emergencies.

In its report, the GAO questioned whether contractors can be expected to provide emergency services, compared with Forest Service employees who know they may be asked to volunteer for one to three weeks each year on a fire line.

"For example, the Forest Service could not hold a competition for fleet maintenance and expect firms that specialize in fleet maintenance to provide unrelated services at the scene of the fire, such as providing food and supplies," the GAO said.

The GAO also questioned claims by the Forest Service that it has saved money as the result of job competitions.

For example, the Forest Service reported saving $35.2 million in fiscal 2005 and 2006 after an in-house team won a competition to provide technology services by restructuring operations to be more efficient. But the GAO said the Forest Service excluded about $40 million in transition costs, which suggested costs exceeded savings by about $5 million.

Because of the controversy over job competitions and estimated savings, Congress shut down the Forest Service's competitive sourcing program for fiscal 2008. The administration wants to reinstate it for 2009.

In prior years, Congress has limited spending for the program. In fiscal 2006 and 2007, for instance, the Forest Service was limited to spending no more than $3 million per year.

But the GAO said the Forest Service did not have sufficient data to show that it complied with the 2006 and 2007 curbs. The agency "narrowly interpreted the spending limitations to exclude certain costs," the GAO said, citing money spent on employee salaries during studies to determine the feasibility of conducting a job competition.

In a letter accompanying the report, the Forest Service acknowledged it lacks an overall strategy to assess the effect of outsourcing on its emergency response, but said it weighs any such risk "on a study by study basis."

The Forest Service also said "it does not believe that it exceeded" spending curbs placed on outsourcing by the Congress.

Talk Shows

Daniel DeSimone, a supervisory special agent at the FBI, will be the guest on "FedTalk" at 11 a.m. today on http://federalnewsradio.com and WFED radio (1050 AM).

Charles R. Christopherson Jr., Agriculture Department chief financial officer and chief information officer, will be the guest on the IBM "Business of Government Hour" at 9 a.m. tomorrow on WJFK radio (106.7 FM).

Stephen Barr's e-mail address is barrs@washpost.com.


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