Buy Lines: Straight talk about fed employees, competitive sourcing

Stan Soloway

As the administration rolls out its final revisions to the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76, the warfare over competitive sourcing is certain to intensify. Through it all, the mantra of the federal employee union leadership will remain the same: Stopping outsourcing,
or at least mandating public-private competitions under A-76 for all government work, is a matter of fairness for federal employees.

But do public-private competitions really always represent the best interests of federal employees? The answer is a resounding no.

Like any work force, the primary interests of federal employees lie in opportunities for reward, professional development and job satisfaction. The government, unfortunately, lags well behind the private sector when it comes to investing in its people, thus making the attainment of those goals unusually difficult. And it's unrealistic to think that will change anytime soon.

At the same time, severely limited resources and the rapidly changing nature of the work itself are requiring the government to make long-overdue decisions regarding what it can or should do in-house and what is best left to the competitive marketplace. Those strategic decisions can be made in a manner that treats the incumbent work force as an important asset. That's good for the work force, the agency and the taxpayer.

On the other hand, the primary institutional interest of the federal unions, much like that of any business, is to capture their "addressable" market, which is determined by the size of the federal work force. The tidal wave of federal retirements, the government's difficulty attracting new hires, an antiquated personnel system and the general pace of change have combined to create a monumental threat to that marketplace. This market reality often places the interests of the unions at cross-purposes with those of their own members.

Blinded by its own interest in keeping its market as large as possible, federal union leadership works non-stop to convince anyone who will listen -- especially its own members -- that outsourcing equals scandalously low wages, massive unemployment and other horrors.

Never mind that, to buttress their campaign for higher civil service pay, these same leaders consistently cite the pay gap between the public and private sectors -- a point on which they are right but which, logically, disproves the claim of lower wages. Never mind that the data show the unemployment resulting from outsourcing is negligible. And never mind that many private-sector unions have testified that private-sector employers often offer much more to their employees than the government. These are inconvenient facts.

The government is not, cannot and need not be competitive with the private sector in all functional areas. And in those cases, where the private sector is the logical source, innovative strategies exist to actually benefit the affected federal employees while availing the government of needed, cutting-edge solutions.

Nonetheless, the federal unions aggressively and consistently oppose these innovative outsourcing approaches.

Where such strategies have been pursued, such as at the National Security Agency, the Army and the Navy, the benefits to the affected federal work force have far exceeded anything that could have been done under A-76, including if the work had been retained in-house. In each of those cases, the work force was treated as a critical asset and was rewarded accordingly.

Pitting the government against the private sector is all too often a suboptimal answer, particularly where the government has lagged behind. And all too often, it is unfair to the incumbent federal work force.

Opening the door to alternative strategies not only benefits the agencies and the taxpayer, but also offers real opportunity for affected federal employees. They deserve nothing less.

Stan Soloway is president of the Professional Services Council and served as deputy undersecretary of defense in the Clinton administration. His e-mail is

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