Time to nail down contractor roles

Buylines | Policies, strategies and trends to watch

The question of which functions can or should be performed
by federal contractors has been the focus of
increasing debate, including two congressional hearings held
in early March. The issues involved are complex but timely.
As I testified before the Senate Homeland Security and
Governmental Affairs Committee last summer, it is vital that the discussion
proceed based on current realities and in context.

In his March 11 testimony on the subject,
Comptroller General David Walker cited
the confusion many agencies face in determining
which functions and activities
should be contracted out and which should
not. As Walker testified, the issue is only
partially related to determining which
functions are inherently governmental ?
that is, "so intimately related to the public
interest as to require performance [exclusively]
by government employees." Walker
and others question whether agencies have
consistently exercised
adequate diligence to
meet that test or have
the resources to do so.

But a more ambiguous
and complicated area involves functions
that are sometimes referred to as closely
associated with the performance of inherently
governmental functions. As Walker
noted, federal procurement policy requires
agencies to exercise "greater scrutiny and
management oversight" when contracting
for such support ? an objective he said he
believes is not being met consistently.

Notably, Walker did not call for a cessation
to contracting for the performance of
such functions. Rather, he questioned
whether agencies place adequate priority
on building the acquisition, management
and technical capacity to evaluate and oversee
such contracts. His testimony did not
define a bright-line test that would support
hiring mandates or prohibitions.

Walker's testimony and the hearings
themselves suggest it is time to rethink the
framework of this important policy discussion.
The key to properly balancing government
and contractor roles ? and to ensuring
agencies' ability to adequately control
and protect their interests and those of
public ? lies in a clarity of terms and linking
those definitions to strategic workforce
planning and execution.

This new framework must first be underpinned
by a common and consistent definition
of the term "inherently governmental."
It is defined in slightly different ways in
various regulations, laws and policies.

Second, as Walker's testimony implies,
the phrase closely associated with inherently
governmental functions is vague and
ambiguous, and it should be replaced with
a clearer framework around which agencies
would define critical organization positions
essential to protecting the government's
interests and ability to control its mission
responsibilities. Moreover, agency workforce
plans should be required to explicitly
define how they identify, address and
establish priorities in these critical areas.

At the same time, Congress should
avoid dictating outcomes through hiring
mandates or prohibitions. As shown by
the thousands of vacant positions governmentwide
? and the broader, complex
personnel challenges ? such a
sweeping approach could imperil agency
performance and is unlikely to succeed.

Clarifying the proper roles of contractors
is a valuable exercise. As Walker's testimony,
the report of the Gansler Commission
on Army Contracting and many others
suggest, the face of government has clearly
changed.

Our traditional assumptions and
approaches to these issues must change,
too. There is no reason such new thinking
needs to be at odds with our common commitment
to protecting the public interest.
Creating a workable framework with clear
definitions would be a good start.

Stan Soloway (soloway@pscouncil.org) is
president and chief executive officer of the
Professional Services Council.

About the Author

Stan Soloway is president and chief executive officer of the Professional Services Council.

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