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Minding the debt . . . and the desktops, too

The Bureau of Public Debt is best known for selling Treasury bonds to finance the government and repaying borrowers when those bonds come due -- a normally boring job that's taken on existential significance in recent weeks as Congress and the White House battle over raising the ceiling on federal borrowing.

The bureau also has an extensive sideline, though, in providing other civilian agencies with information technology services, including website development, data hosting, security assessments and help desk services.

About 18 percent of the bureau's roughly 2,000 employees work on its IT franchise service, spokeswoman Joyce Harris said. The bureau provides IT services to 20 federal agencies, seven of them inside the Treasury Department, where the bureau itself is housed. The rest are inside other departments or independent, she said.

The bureau also runs other sidelines in human resources, travel management, accounting and procurement, many of them organized under the government's lines of business system, a model developed during the George W. Bush administration for leveraging different agencies' expertise and infrastructure to help other agencies save money.

Under the system, the Office of Management and Budget and other agencies certify shared service providers in particular lines of business, such as human resources or financial management, and other agencies contract with the provider for those services. The provider plows any profits from its federal customers back into offering cheaper services.

The bureau's work as a service provider traces its roots to the mid -1990s when it consolidated most of its offices into a single location in Parkersburg, W.V. That process, which involved moving hundreds of staffers and tons of equipment, proved to be a crash course in many of the thornier issues of human resources, travel management and other issues, Harris said.

In addition to the bureau's newfound expertise in many areas, it also could offer services more cheaply than many Washington-based agencies because of the lower cost of labor and property in Parkersburg, Harris said.

About half the bureau's employees work in franchise services, Harris said, rather than for its main business of selling bonds and paying interest. In total the bureau's franchise services have 69 federal agency customers, she said.

The bureau's strategic plan envisions growing its franchise services through at least 2014.

Despite the franchise services' location inside the Bureau of Public Debt, they will be in the same boat as other agencies if the government defaults on its debt or -- more likely -- brings many federal functions to a screeching halt in order to free up money to continue making debt service payments.

"As a franchise organization we are dependent upon customer revenues," Harris said in an email, "and any significant disruption in that flow would require cost reduction actions on our part."

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