The reluctance to reveal outsourcing data

Letter to the Editor

I was glad to see GCN's story, 'Government's other IT workforce,' (Dec. 12). It brings attention to a long-standing issue of just how reluctant feds and contractors are to reveal how many contractors are doing government work. The reason: both sides fear they have something to lose. And both sides will resist changing unless there's public pressure on the issue.

Government agencies shy away from counting contractors because it avoids revealing how large the federal workforce actually is. With Congress unwilling to expand the federal workforce, adding more contract staff has been the only option most managers have had to manage their growing workload'especially from 'unfunded mandates' which would be impossible to do without contract staff. If the public realized how many contractors are working as full-time federal employees, how much costlier they are, and how much less accountable they are in adhering to the stringent rules governing federal employees, policymakers would face a torrent of difficult questions.

Similarly, contractors resist sharing staff counts in order to avoid undue attention on programs that keep a lot of companies in business'and profitable. In my experience as a federal manager, contract employees in the IT field cost roughly 50 percent more than equivalent government employees do. That doesn't include the overhead you pay to the contracting company or the costs for housing contractors in your facility and providing them with the equipment and software they need to do the work.

One of the huge fallacies about outsourcing is that contractors have more flexibility in reassigning staff and managing workloads. In practice, if you have contractors working side-by-side with federal employees, you typically get charged for that contractor's time even if there isn't enough work to allocate to your contract. The final rub is that the expertise you think you'll be getting from contract staff often simply isn't there. As a new employee just out of college, I was passed off as a GS-11 equivalent. Presumably, that's the amount of money the government was paying the contractor for my time, but I can assure you the GS-11 salary wasn't coming to me! When I ultimately joined the government agency that had hired this company (but stopped doing so after I blew the whistle on them), they got me as a bargain-basement-priced GS-5!

For information technology, this is a serious issue. Federal IT managers are expected to make sound spending decisions about increasingly complex technical choices that few of them have the training for. How can a government employee provide oversight of an IT project without having technical expertise at least as great as'and preferably greater than'the contractors he/she hires?

Turning federal IT shops over to people without top-notch technical skills is a recipe for disaster. I'm seeing a lot of it in my own agency in recent years, resulting in foot-dragging and bad decisions that leave us unable to make basic headway in building a sound enterprise architecture. Many of these 'new' IT managers feel they have no choice but to take the recommendation of their contractor, who as you point out, may have a serious conflict of interest in the matter. More often than not, IT contractors have an incentive to sell you a system that's a good deal for them, whether or not it's a good deal for you.

My view is that certain kinds of IT jobs should not be contracted out unless they will be managed by someone with the technical expertise to oversee the work'particularly jobs that involve the development or purchase of new systems. The impact of such systems will linger for years in the agency that adopts or builds them, and it's critical that sound long-term decisions are being made.

If you leave such a decision to the contractor who's selling you a solution, you're accepting the opinion of someone whose self-interest may cloud his or her objectivity. Would you ask the company who built your home to do the final inspection on it? I don't think so. Yet that's effectively what happens a lot in government.

L. Scott is a manager with a federal agency. He wishes to express his views as a citizen.

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