IG raps NASA's use of service contractors

NASA is improperly using contractors to provide administrative services, the agency's inspector general concludes in a new report. NASA Inspector General Roberta Gross rapped the agency for blurring the line between civil servants and contracting personnel who perform administrative and clerical work. After reviewing the use of contractors at five NASA centers, the IG concluded that NASA employees were supervising contractors--a practice that runs counter to several federal regulations. "Because of the way in which some of these support contracts are administered, we believe that they may violate the intent of several government regulations," said Gross in a memo accompanying the report. NASA's practice of bringing contractors in-house to perform such tasks as answering phones and sorting mail skirts three general regulations. Under the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR), civil servants are prohibited from entering into an "employer-employee" relationship with contractors. Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76 prevents contractors from performing administrative duties of a "general nature." And Office of Personnel Management regulations prohibit administrative support contractors from working with civil servants for extended periods. The IG found improper relationships between administrative contractors and civil servants at Goddard Space Flight Center (Maryland), Johnson Space Center (Texas), Marshall Space Flight Center (Alabama), Dryden Flight Research Center (California), and Glenn Research Center (Ohio). NASA's five other centers do not use contractors to perform administrative services, in part because of the difficulty of managing such contracts, according to the report. But Gross did not call for NASA to stop using contractors to perform administrative work. Instead, the IG urged agency procurement officers to emphasize the FAR rules and A-76 guidelines throughout the contracting process. The report also recommends that NASA's Office of Human Resources and Education team up with the agency's Procurement Office to develop agencywide policy to help distinguish civil servants from contractors. Performance-based contracting may also help clarify the role of contractors, procurement experts said. "With performance-based contracts, you have to think through what you want your support contractors to perform," said Allan V. Burman, former head of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy (OFPP) who currently heads Jefferson Solutions, a Washington-based consulting firm. "If contractors and government workers are sitting side-by-side, performance-based contracts can define [roles]." NASA has often faced scrutiny for failing to separate the roles of contractors and civil servants. The FAR provision that prohibits employer-employee relationships between civil servants and contractors dates from a 1967 case involving NASA's use of contractors. OPM reviews NASA's management of its personnel every three years. Inspectors general were urged to review agencies' use of support service contractors in a 1993 OFPP letter. According to Burman and current OFPP officials, however, the audit by NASA's IG may be the first of its kind; no one was certain if other IGs had ever examined the issue.
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