New job competition rules shake up agency plans

Some agencies are having trouble adjusting to the government's new rules for putting federal jobs up for competition with private firms, federal procurement chief Angela Styles said Monday.

Styles, speaking at a luncheon at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, said some agencies have questioned whether they must stop performing direct conversions, a process where the government turns over work to private contractors without letting federal employees compete for their jobs. The Bush administration banned direct conversions on May 29, when Office of Management and Budget officials released a revised version of Circular A-76.

From March 2001 until last Thursday, OMB allowed agencies to use direct conversions for credit toward its competitive sourcing initiative, which seeks to make 425,000 federal workers face private sector competition.

Under the new circular, agencies have 30 days to convert ongoing direct conversions to competitions, generally using OMB's new "streamlined" process for competitions involving 65 or fewer civil servants. Even direct conversions that were to be finished last Friday must be converted into "streamlined" competitions under the new circular, said Styles.

"I've had so many agencies come to me and say 'Oh my God, we've got all these direct conversions, these streamlined cost comparisons going on,' she said. "If you were . . . managing right in the first place, it shouldn't be that hard to change [them] over."

The revised circular also requires all full-size job competitions that have not yet been publicly announced to follow OMB's new competition rules. Styles emphasized that agencies should contact OMB if they are having trouble converting certain competitions, and said that exceptions to the conversion requirement are possible.

The Defense Department has about 30 direct conversions that were nearing completion, and that could be affected by OMB's rule change, according to Joe Sikes, director of Defense's office of competitive sourcing and privatization. Sikes will soon meet with competitive sourcing officials from the military services to discuss how to handle these direct conversions, he said.

"If there are some that are too close [to completion] we might call [OMB] and try to work out some kind of accommodation," he said.

The Interior Department finished its direct conversions before the May 29 cutoff date, according to Helen Bradwell-Lynch, director of competitive sourcing at Interior. But Interior officials are looking for OMB guidance for handling "express review" competitions, a custom method in which very small groups of federal employees were allowed to compete for their jobs.

Styles also clarified that agencies can no longer perform direct conversions on vacant federal jobs. Some agencies-including the National Park Service-have directly converted empty jobs as a way to put fewer employees through the job competition process. But this practice did not require agencies to determine whether the government would save money-and gain efficiency-by using contractors to perform the work.

"I want documentation of the decision by the agency that this is a cost effective solution," she said.

Styles said that most agencies were pleased with the new circular, and added that the Education Department in particular was eager to use the new competition rules.

"I spent a lot of time with the agencies on this circular," she said. "I think you will note there is not the uproar that you probably saw when we came out with the draft [circular], because I spent days and days with different agencies, I let them read it, I took their comments into consideration, and I made specific changes that agencies requested…to help make this a process that would work better."

Styles cited Education and the Federal Aviation Administration as examples of two agencies that had made great strides in competitive sourcing. The FAA plans to make 2,700 flight service specialists compete for their jobs in what would be one of the biggest job competitions ever held by a federal agency. "These are people who look at the weather for pilots," Styles said of flight service specialists.

The Agency for International Development and Smithsonian Institution still are holdouts from the competition push, she said. Styles did say that the Smithsonian had made progress on its in inventory of "commercial" jobs, which are eligible for competitive sourcing under the 1998 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act. For years, the agency apparently classified some commercial jobs as "inherently Smithsonian," - a category that does not exist under the 1998 law - but Styles convinced them to stop this practice, she said.

"Instead of inherently governmental and commercial it was 'inherently Smithsonian,'" said Styles.

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