White House pondered longer job competition deadlines

The White House considered giving agencies much more time to complete public-private job competitions before choosing a 12-month deadline, according to sources and documents obtained by Government Executive.

The Office of Management and Budget set the 12-month deadline in its proposed revision to OMB Circular A-76, released Nov. 14.

But OMB considered longer deadlines in a series of internal draft revisions of the circular written during the late summer and fall. As late as early October, OMB favored giving agencies 15 months to finish a competition, according to a copy of the Oct. 7 draft obtained by Government Executive. Earlier drafts proposed giving agencies 18 and 24 months to finish a competition, according to multiple sources familiar with the documents. The 12-month deadline is one of the most controversial provisions in the new circular because competitions seldom have been finished so quickly before, and some officials fear the deadline may be impossible to meet. Others say the short time frame is necessary to make agencies take competitive sourcing seriously.

Speeding up competitions is a top priority for Bush officials, who believe the length of most competitions-which can last two to four years-is unfair to federal employees and contractors alike. "If there is one thing about this process we want to change, it is the time it takes to go through it," said Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator Angela Styles at a Dec. 2 conference sponsored by the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships. "We fundamentally have to move from a two- to four-year time frame to a one-year time frame."

OMB picked the 12-month schedule after exploring several ways to shorten competitions, according to an OMB official. "During the deliberative process, there were many options on the table that OMB considered," said the official. "We had parties explain that 12 months is a reasonable standard time frame."

One of these groups may have been Warden Associates, a Springfield, Va.-based company that is helping run job competitions at several agencies. At a July hearing of the Commercial Activities Panel, a congressional panel that studied federal outsourcing, the company testified that competitions could be finished in 12 to 18 months. "I think people should try to get it done in the 12-month time period," said Dale Warden, chief operating officer for the company.

But federal unions fear the deadline will force agencies to cut corners, and noted that OMB did not include funds to train employees to run competitions in the compressed time frame.

"Agencies aren't going to receive increases in training budgets from the [circular] rewrite," said Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "They will rush through competitions and undertake even more wasteful contracting out."

Some officials believe the 12-month deadline will place unprecedented pressure on agencies and could even make the A-76 process more expensive. "When you try to do things in 12 months or less there are going to be more screw-ups, more gaps that will end up costing taxpayers far more than if we would have gone through an 18-month or 24-month study," said a competitive sourcing manager at a civilian agency, who requested anonymity.

Dennis O'Brien, director of competitive sourcing at the Energy Department, said the shorter time frame could force agencies to do more analysis before they announce a competition, which could increase costs. "The IRS has a procedure now where they spend a lot of time and money on feasibility studies before they start, so I think it's going to end up costing more money to do the studies," he said at the National Council for Public-Private Partnerships event. "I know in several civilian departments, before we make that announcement, before the clock starts, we're going to make sure of what we're doing."

But others think the deadline is realistic and noted the new circular allows extensions if needed. "We're not overly concerned about the one-year [deadline] to get a study done," said Helen Bradwell-Lynch, director of competitive sourcing at the Interior Department.

Significantly, the circular allows agencies to waive the 12-month requirement for "particularly complex" competitions and propose a new time frame when the competition is announced, as long as they notify the deputy director of management at OMB, currently Mark Everson. This flexibility was not part of the Oct. 7 draft. Agencies can also grant a one-time, six-month extension to a competition with notification to OMB.

But agencies, under pressure to improve their scorecard ratings for competitive sourcing, could be reluctant to ask for more time, Harnage said.

Another provision in the circular allows work to be outsourced if agencies fall behind in a competition. Specifically, if officials fail to issue a solicitation for proposals after eight months, agencies can opt to simply contract-out the work involved. But OMB's intent is to hold full public-private job competitions, and the budget office will help agencies meet the deadlines, according to Styles.

"Our presumption is that we're going to devote resources at the agency and OMB to figure out what they're doing and have a real public-private competition," she said at the NCPPP event.

The biggest challenge for agencies could take place within the final four months of a competition, when in-house employees and private firms develop their bids and the agency must choose a winner. Arthur Smith, president of Management Analysis Inc., a Vienna, Va.-based company that helps perform A-76 studies, said four months might not be enough time for the agency to evaluate proposals.

"I'd be concerned that to allow adequate time for source selection, the time for preparation of offers might be reduced, which would be to the detriment of the government and the private sector," Smith said at the NCPPP event.

William Eggers, a fellow with the Manhattan Institute who advised the Bush campaign on government privatization, said OMB should form an interagency committee to develop best practices for conducting quick A-76 studies. "They also need to lay out guidelines and set up a working group for how to actually get to 12 months," he said, noting that OMB had developed such guidance for other management issues. "Otherwise, the agencies will all be flailing around."

Technology could help civilian agencies learn about how the military and state governments have run public-private competitions, Eggers added. "If I'm in a national park and I want to contract out lawn mowing and want to find best practices, and it turns out best practices are at an Army base in Georgia, there ought to be a way to get that information."

OMB is accepting comments on its proposed revisions to Circular A-76 until Dec. 19. The budget office is urging interested parties to submit comments by e-mail to A-76comments@omb.eop.gov.

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