It's no secret that the government turns to contractors, state and local governments, nonprofit organizations and others to deliver services and programs to citizens.

And it's no secret that the government sometimes has trouble managing its relationships with these third parties.

In recent months, the Education Department has been criticized for hiring a conservative commentator to push favorable reporting on the president's No Child Left Behind initiative. The Pentagon has been roiled by improper contracting practices in the purchase of products and services for the war in Iraq and has faced allegations of contractor abuse at Abu Ghraib prison.

There's even been in-house scandal -- a former Air Force acquisition official went to jail for playing favorites in procurement decisions, and a former Office of Management and Budget procurement policy chief has been arrested in connection with a probe into the dealings of a Washington lobbyist.

It's also no secret that contracting out of federal work will continue and probably grow in coming decades. Congress, for instance, has given the green light to the Internal Revenue Service to use private collection companies to track down deadbeat taxpayers. The companies will get to keep a share of the revenue they bring in.

Inside the government, the White House has rubbed numerous federal employees the wrong way with its push for competitive sourcing -- cost-comparison studies to see whether federal jobs can be turned over to the private sector. Unions have fought the effort, and Congress has placed some restraints on the initiative in appropriations bills.

Without taking sides or passing judgment on the use of third parties, the National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered think tank, has launched a project to help federal agencies examine how they deal with what the academy calls "the multi-sector workforce."

The idea is "to really help the government rethink what it's all about," said C. Morgan Kinghorn, the academy's president.

Hannah Sistare, director of a management consortium at the academy, said: "We have moved to whole new ways of hiring and managing the performance of government work without thinking about what is the best way to do it."

A report prepared by the academy draws from research by Lester M. Salamon, Paul C. Light, Dan Guttman and other academy fellows. The government, in 2002, supported 5.16 million jobs through contracts and 2.8 million jobs through grants, the report said. Government employees that year included 1.8 million civil servants, 1.45 million uniformed military personnel and 875,000 postal workers.

Dealing with a multi-sector workforce involves an array of regulatory, personnel and managerial issues, with accountability for program failures and successes high on the list, said Alethea Long-Green, human resources director for government studies at the academy.

Federal managers, she said, "are ultimately accountable for what's done, how it's done and to whom it's done."

The academy's report, which reflects the first phase of its research, poses a series of questions for debate. For example:

* What is the impact on our constitutional system, administrative law and ethical norms when a multi-sector workforce carries out government missions?

* What tools exist or need to be developed to improve management of the multi-sector workforce?

* How do we ensure accountability for the performance of the multi-sector workforce, not just that of federal employees?

* Does it make a difference that federal employees take an "oath of office" while contract employees do not?

The academy plans to sponsor forums aimed at finding answers to such questions and hopes to serve as a catalyst for research projects by others.

Most federal managers "have come up in a different system" that assumed government employees, not outsiders, would oversee and deliver services to taxpayers, Kinghorn said. "Now they find themselves at the peak of their careers or near the ends of their careers trying to figure out how to manage something that has changed under their very feet," he said.

"They are not in control anymore. They are trying to figure out, 'How do I have accountability?' . . . . It is a very difficult world."