Contract work is essential, but it requires parental supervision

By Joe Davison
Federal DIary
Thursday, July 15, 2010; B03

If federal procurement policy excites you, you might want to get out of the house more often. And I know just where to go.

The Senate Budget Committee's government performance task force is to examine federal contracting at a Capitol Hill hearing Thursday morning. It won't be as thrilling as the engagement of Bristol Palin and Levi Johnston, but contracting gets to the heart of the way the government does business, particularly in wartime.

In addition to two government contracting officials, the meeting will feature a couple of scholars who have very different views but agree on the need to boost government oversight of contracts.

Consider this from the prepared testimony of the Heritage Foundation's James Jay Carafano: "The private sector's increasing role in public wars can be a good thing for American security."

Yet, two pages later, he says that "providing for the common defense" as a core constitutional responsibility fits squarely with the inherently governmental standard that determines what Uncle Sam, not contractors, should do.

Says Allison Stanger, a professor of international politics and economics at Middlebury College: "The laissez-faire outsourcing -- or to use Defense Secretary [Robert M.] Gates's language, the 'willy-nilly' contracting -- that accompanied the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan often meant that oversight and management were outsourced as well as implementation, with predictable consequences."

Admittedly, government contracting generates a big yawn from those not directly concerned with it. But to the extent it is overlooked as a central issue, we risk neglecting a segment of government that has grown like a teenager without proper parental supervision.

"We must do better across government," said Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chairman of the task force.

During the Bush administration, contract spending doubled, but the number of government workers assigned to oversee it remained about the same.

"This lack of capacity has caused harm at every step of the acquisition process, from poor definitions of the government's requirements, to unjustified sole-source contracting and poorly run competitions, to failure to adequately oversee the contractor," Daniel Gordon, the federal procurement policy administrator, said he planned to tell the panel.

But more than just a problem of too few federal employees watching over many federal contracts, Stanger said in her written testimony that contracting has reached "a tipping point," where the interests of the private sector "begin to undermine the public interest."

"Contracting continues to be perceived as something peripheral to policy itself rather than wholly comprising it," Stanger continued. "When contracting and grants comprise 83 percent of the State Department's requested budget, as they did in 2008, 82 percent of the Pentagon's budget and a whopping 99 percent of USAID's net cost of operations, this is clearly no longer the case."

One point that everyone agrees on is the need to beef up the acquisition workforce.

Toward that end, President Obama requested $158 million to bolster the acquisition workforce in civilian agencies in his budget proposal for fiscal 2011.

Telework bill advances

The House approved legislation Wednesday that would jump-start the federal government's telework program by expanding work-at-home options. The vote was 290 to 131.

The Senate passed a similar bill in May, and the policy has broad support from the Obama administration. A survey of federal workers released this week found that just 10 percent do their jobs from home.

Agencies would be required to appoint a telework managing officer, with the goal of setting up a policy that boosts participation. Workers who handle secure or classified information would still report to the office. Working from home would be permitted as long as it wouldn't hinder the agency's operation. The Government Accountability Office would be required to gather data on whether the program is working.

Supporters, including sponsors Reps. John Sarbanes (D-Md.), Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.) and Gerald E. Connolly (D-Va.), say the Telework Improvements Act would save millions of dollars a year in lost productivity during weather-related shutdowns.

Others have expressed concern about potential breaches of computer security and worry that workers might not answer calls when they're at home.

Staff writer Lisa Rein contributed to this column.

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