Federal agencies studying whether to contract out more government work to the private sector will have the flexibility to go beyond a 12-month timetable recently detailed by the Bush administration, according to a top official.
Angela Styles, administrator for federal procurement policy at the Office of Management and Budget, said OMB officials did not intend to set an unbreakable deadline in recent proposed revisions to federal rules on outsourcing.
"Either it was a failure in drafting on our part, or people didn't read it," Styles said in a recent interview.
The proposed changes in "Circular A-76," a 48-year-old regulation governing how the private sector competes for work that does not necessarily have to be done by federal employees, could speed up the outsourcing of a wide range of federal jobs such as mowing lawns, designing computer networks and maintaining weapons systems.
The administration had proposed a 12-month time frame to determine whether more work should go to the private sector, a dramatic shortening of a process that has often taken three or four years. The tighter schedule drew questions and criticism from several agencies in comments recently submitted to OMB. The planned revisions, proposed in November, are not yet final. The OMB has received more than 600 comments on the proposals, including more than 40 from federal agencies.
"The time frames as stated are unrealistic," wrote Barbara Stearrett, an official with the Environmental Protection Agency. "The time frame for a standard competition must be more flexible."
An official with the Department of Housing and Urban Development wrote that, "twelve months for completion of a standard competition does not seem reasonable for agencies with little or no experience in this process."
Even Comptroller General David M. Walker, the chairman of a panel whose final report provided a blueprint for ways to improve outsourcing, described the new time frame as "unrealistic."
He noted that the Department of Defense takes an average of 25 months to complete cost comparisons between the private and public sectors, and awarding a contract took an average of seven months.
"While these averages demonstrate the need to expedite the process, we question whether simply imposing aggressive, fixed deadlines is the answer," Walker wrote on behalf of the General Accounting Office. "We recommend that the time frames be revised to be more realistic (perhaps 15 to 18 months overall) and that OMB ensure that agencies provide sufficient resources to comply with the new . . . requirements."
Styles said, however, that the 12-month time frame is merely the preferred deadline. Agencies may establish slower schedules simply by notifying OMB before they announce their job competitions, she said.
"It's up to the agencies' discretion, as long as they notify us," Styles said. "We're going to be encouraging agencies to do it quicker. It's better for people in the private sector that are investing their money, and it's better for [federal] employees who are facing the unknown."
Styles said it was "absolutely not" true that agencies who exceed the 12-month time frame would automatically lose the competitions to a private-sector bidder. "Could one of the alternatives be that this work goes to the private sector? Yes, it is," she said. "But that's not the favored alternative. It's not the presumed alternative."
The 12-month time frame was one of many proposed revisions that would speed the way federal agencies determine whether to contract out the 850,000 federal jobs identified as not "inherently governmental." The administration's goal is to "compete out" 50 percent of those jobs over the next few years, including 15 percent by October.
Bush officials and private contractors say requiring public employees to compete for their jobs improves government efficiency. Unions say the initiative is merely an administration effort to steer lucrative contracts toward business allies.
In their written comments, several agencies criticized a proposal to require managers to presume all federal jobs are commercial in nature -- and thereby subject to contracting out -- unless they demonstrate that only government employees can do them. Agencies also would be required to take an annual inventory of all jobs on their payrolls, a process some officials said would consume time and money they cannot spare.
Several agency officials also chafed at new requirements to allow the private sector to compete for more inter-service support agreements -- longtime contracts under which one agency performs a service for another. And some criticized a proposed requirement that federal workers who win competitions against contractors be required to compete again for the work every three to five years.
"The actual duration of 'permanent' federal employment will become so uncertain that people may be reluctant to apply for government jobs," the Small Business Administration wrote.
The Coast Guard noted that "despite numerous references to 'savings' throughout the proposed Circular, no standard measurement methodology of those 'savings' is provided," a point echoed by the GAO.
Styles said she had identified "10 or 12 major policy issues" from the written comments that are worth further study. She declined to identify them or say when the policy revisions would go into effect. While the administration's goal is to put more jobs up for competition, she said, officials want to do so in a way that makes sense.
"Each agency has an individualized plan," Styles said. "It's going to take them a few years even to get to the 15 percent goal that we set originally, because they are working hard to build the infrastructure to do it right."