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Civil Service Has Morphed Into U.S. Inc.

Diminishing the government workforce increases the role of private contractors, and the mixed results go undebated.

July 18, 2004|Linda Bilmes | Linda Bilmes, an assistant secretary of Commerce during the Clinton administration, teaches public policy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. She is co-author of a forthcoming book on Civil Service reform, "The People Factor."

Third, where do we draw the line on which jobs are so "mission-critical" that they simply must be done by government employees? In some areas, the risks of losing control may well outweigh budgetary considerations -- as, say, in the interrogation of military prisoners. But the pendulum has swung so far in favor of contracting out that departments typically even hire outside companies to perform audits of other government contractors.

In Iraq, this issue is compounded by contractors' murky legal status. Under the Geneva Convention, they are noncombatants, but many of those working in Iraq carry arms and work as paramilitary security forces, or they are involved in training military security forces. Employees from at least two military contractors (CACI of Arlington, Va., and Titan of San Diego) are being investigated for their possible role in alleged torture at Abu Ghraib prison. The CACI contract has riled the procurement community because it was not even purchased directly by the Pentagon but was part of a larger contract negotiated by the Department of the Interior to provide computer network solutions.

Finally, how should this large and growing army of workers be managed? The rules governing how and what the government buys are designed to ensure fair competition. But more than half of government contracts are awarded without full competition, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan budget analyst. Giant contractors have become adept at gaming the system. Once firms win big contracts -- often using low-ball initial cost estimates -- the government becomes so dependent on their services that it's almost impossible to get rid of them.

This trend toward privatization of government is likely to accelerate even more. At the Department of Defense, 50% of civilian military workers will soon be eligible to retire. Many of those retirees, still in their mid-50s, will end up in the "revolving door," working for contractors after their obligatory one-year abstinence from government-related work.

The war in Iraq is proving to be a wake-up call regarding the role of contractors. Last month, the Senate approved amendments to the 2005 defense appropriations bill that would place controls on the Pentagon's use of outside companies. But that's unlikely to be enough.

It is time to stop the hypocrisy of claiming to shrink government while hiring an ever-larger contingent of private contractors. If these employees are performing work crucial to the function of government, then we should integrate them more fully into the government workforce -- with the same responsibilities and benefits as other government employees.

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