Inherently governmental remains inherently confusing

Ongoing debates about what government work is inherently government reminds FCW cartoonist and blogger John Klossner of a game he played (but not very well) as kid.

Klossner schoolbus courthouse

When I was a kid I remember encountering a game on the school bus -- which is where all our real social learning took place -- that was called, if I remember correctly, "picnic." (Many of the details of the game have been affected by the trauma I'm about to describe. Also, the fact of it being a kids' game, with different names, rules and versions existing throughout the land, combined with my ability to remember the name of the assistant gaffer on a 1952 movie but not remember what time my daughter gets home from school -- even though it has been the same time for 5 years now -- makes some of the details I'm sharing questionable. Just go with the gist of what I'm describing.)

The game took place by the first person saying "I'm going on a picnic and I'm going to bring X and Y.” Now, if the person's name was, say, John Klossner, they'd say "...I'm going to bring jelly beans and komodo dragons." This would go around to every person playing, and when it came around to John Klossner again he would say "...and I'm bringing jumping jacks and kiwis." And so on.

Those of you who have played this game, or have a natural affinity for children's-game logic, have probably figured out that the trick here is to bring items that begin with the same letters of your first and last names. In fact, the game -- again, as I remember it -- was based on people being able to "join" the picnic once they figured this out and could bring the correct items. (On a personal note: It was a handicap to have a "K" name in this game, as I ended up sounding like I was from Tasmania or had a bag full of marsupials with me.) I was not one of these people. I finally had to have the rules explained to me, but not before being subjected to a lot of 10 year-old derision. After that I was allowed to play, as they then had to search out another person who wasn't in on the "rules." But then that person would figure it out immediately, and everyone would be reminded of how I did not.

I am in the same position with the discussion about "inherently governmental," the term for defining what jobs should be confined to federal employees, and not private contractors. Generally speaking, these are (from an FCW article on the subject) "function(s) that (are) so intimately related to the public interest as to mandate performance by government employees." This discussion is taking place as Congress is pressuring the administration to better define "inherently governmental," the administration is trying to insource government jobs and reports are coming out that agencies are relying too much on contractor workforces.

Similar to my school bus experience, I am not sure what the rules are here. But there is one difference: In that childhood game, many of the other players knew the rules, and the entertainment came from watching someone try to figure them out. I get the feeling that nobody in the "inherently governmental" conversations knows the rules or, more accurately, everyone has their own set of rules. (There may be a children's game that serves as a better analogy, but none come to mind.) As the previously cited FCW article notes, there has not been an agreed-upon definition since 1992 when, if memory serves me, discussions were held via Pony Express.

I am fascinated by the "inherently governmental" discussions. Can government tasks ever be clearly defined, with differing governing philosophies being debated and, as is currently the case, successive administrations operating with differing plans for the role of the private sector in government?

This leads me to a few questions:

* Is defining "inherently governmental" an inherently governmental job?
* If a private contractor fells a tree in a national forest, does the sound made go on the public record?
* If an agency decides to outsource, is the acquisition process "inherently governmental?"
* If a contractor is invited to an agency office party, do they have to get a federal employee to respond for them? And…
* If I'm going to a federal agency, should I bring the Justice Department and a koala bear?

Klossner contractor cartoon