Contractors are here to stay

One scholar argues that government must rely on contractors or reduce its mission.

When presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) declared in 2007 that she would eliminate 500,000 federal contractors if elected president, some policy experts said she couldn’t do it. One of those experts was Steven Schooner, senior associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor of law at George Washington University.  Whether the federal government relies too much on contractors is an interesting — but irrelevant — philosophical, public policy and moral question, Schooner said in an interview. “The reason it is irrelevant is we have engaged now for more than a generation in a bipartisan legislative and executive effort to create the appearance of a small government,” Schooner said. “We all know that government hasn’t gotten smaller.”The government has no choice but to employ contractors in large numbers, Schooner said, because it doesn’t have enough employees to keep the promises that Congress makes to the public. Schooner’s ideas about outsourcing are contained in a new paper selected by the National Contract Management Association for the inaugural W. Gregor Macfarlan Excellence in Contract Management Research and Writing Program prize. Schooner and the paper’s co-author, Daniel Greenspahn, a law student at George Washington,  will present their research at NCMA’s World Congress this week.  Schooner said the government can responsibly  outsource to augment the federal workforce. However, he and a growing number of policy experts — at the Defense Department, in Congress and on the campaign trail — are critical of what they say is the government’s irresponsible mismanagement of contractors.Smaller government has been a political objective for at least two decades,  Schooner said. “We spent an entire generation of irresponsible underinvestment in the acquisition workforce,” he said. “So now we spend a lot of energy on inspectors general, auditors and oversight to find all the mistakes the contractors made rather than do anything to avoid those mistakes.”To change that situation, the government needs to find acquisition leaders who know how to manage outsourcing, Schooner said. Schooner said Clinton’s campaign pledge to cut 500,000 federal contractors is not surprising. “Nobody out on the stump is arguing that we need a bigger government or that we need to invest in the acquisition workforce.” Nevertheless, Clinton’s statement was vague, Schooner said. “Does that mean she’s going to hire 500,000 more government employees, or is the government going to do fewer things? She doesn’t say.”Stan Soloway, president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council, said the question should be: “Have we adjusted how the government manages its operations, including its acquisition and contracting, to reflect a new face of government, which is very different from what it was 15 or 20 years ago?” 

Research prize

The National Contract Management Association has started the W. Gregor Macfarlan Excellence in Contract Management Research and Writing Program to honor Macfarlan, a past president of NCMA, and generate interest in public-sector contract management, NCMA President Ronald Smith said.

“The time is right to really focus on scholarship and identify root causes and improvements that ought to be made,” Smith said.

This year’s award went to the authors of two papers.

Steven Schooner and Daniel Greenspahn of George Washington University received a $5,000 prize for their paper, “Hired Help: Why Failed Implementation, Rather than Outsourcing Policy, Explains the Government’s Mismanagement of its Contractors.”

Debbie Eytchison, a graduate student at the University of Redlands in California who is pursuing a master’s degree in finance, also earned a $5,000 award. Her paper was on the government’s weak compliance with the Procurement Integrity Act of 1988.

— Florence Olsen