Defense Department will continue job competitions

The Defense Department will put thousands of its jobs up for competition with private firms even as it leads a potential war against international terrorism, according to Office of Management and Budget Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe. The major goals of the President's Management Plan will not change as the government responds to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, O'Keefe said in an interview with GovExec.com Tuesday. He added that e-government, competitive sourcing and the human capital challenge of bringing talented people into government are now even more important in the wake of the attacks. "Shoot, we are trying to acquire means to deliver all manner of crisis response capabilities. That's all the more reason why we have to think about how we competitively source," said O'Keefe. The Bush administration has directed all agencies, including the Defense Department, to compete or outsource 5 percent of all federal jobs considered "commercial" by October 2002. Defense is virtually the only major agency that held job competitions before the Bush mandate. The Department had 399 public-private competitions involving more than 31,000 civilian jobs under way at the end of last year, according to Pentagon figures. Even if some Defense Department civilians have to compete for their jobs, that process would not interfere with Pentagon efforts to prepare for possible military action overseas, O'Keefe said. "I don't think you're going to see brigades and carrier groups being occupied by the [competitive sourcing] issue. They weren't before, and they aren't now," said O'Keefe, who served as Navy Secretary in the previous Bush administration. "It's the administrative apparatus that's doing these things [that will be subject to competition]." Public-private job competitions have continued during military campaigns before. The Air Force conducted job competitions in the midst of Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1991, according to Defense officials. But news that OMB would continue to compete federal jobs prompted some of the first public criticism of the Bush administration since last week's attacks, as federal unions and one civil service scholar questioned the timing of the initiative. "I'm a little bit disappointed that the top priorities haven't changed," said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, the largest independent federal union. "I guess in light of last week's events, I'm concerned because over the past week federal employees have more than shown that in a crisis, they are the ones who will be there to deliver for the public," she said. Kelley spoke from Newark, N.J., where she was visiting Customs Service employees who worked in the World Trade Center complex. Paul Light, a scholar with the Brookings Institution who has been critical of the administration's competitive sourcing program, said OMB should stop competing jobs and shift its entire focus to fixing management problems at critical agencies like the Federal Aviation Administration. "This is a time to think boldly [of management reform]," said Light. The Bush administration should show that it means business by imposing a moratorium on its competition initiative, "which has a ready-fire-aim quality," and think more systematically about what the federal government needs to do its job, Light said. But job competitions can help agencies such as the Defense Department find extra dollars to support their mission, said Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, an association of government contractors. "The [Defense] department must focus on all of the underlying business processes that indirectly support their mission to free up dollars for their critical mission requirements," he said. O'Keefe stressed that the administration's forthcoming "Freedom to Manage" legislation, which will increase the use of pay banding, performance bonuses and other workforce restructuring tools, is even more important now because it will give agencies more flexibility to hire workers with critical skills. Agencies can use another provision in the legislation that seeks to repeal statutes that obstruct good management to get rid of laws that impeded their response to the disaster, O'Keefe said. "This now becomes a very handy vehicle for lessons learned, things that got in the way of the [federal response]," he said. "The imperatives of the management agenda today are every bit as important, and certainly are more evident." O'Keefe also confirmed that a Sept. 10 OMB memorandum directing agencies to trim 5 percent from their fiscal 2003 budget requests is still in effect. Agencies have until Sept. 28 to submit ideas for how they intend to achieve this savings, according to the memo. The directive does not apply to the Defense Department.
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