Hooked on Contracts

Timothy B. Clark Agencies outsource more and more work that is vital to core missions.

Is contracting now the most important thing government does? Let's argue the case for the affirmative. True, government has core responsibilities that cannot, in theory, be outsourced to private or nonprofit organizations. Taxation and providing for the common defense are two powers outlined in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. Yet no writ prescribes how these tasks will be done. In fact, the private sector is deeply involved in both areas: creating the computer systems that make the Internal Revenue Service work, and collecting delinquent taxes; building the weapons systems, training, providing security services and much more in the case of national defense. We now employ about 100,000 contractors in Iraq.

Of late, agencies have been turning to big systems integrators to invent solutions to very big challenges. Control of the borders is a core function of the government. But we don't have control, as huge flows of illegal immigrants testify. The Homeland Security Department, throwing up its hands in apparent helplessness, asked the private sector how it could exert control, and thus was born the Secure Border Initiative, whose SBInet component, outsourced to Boeing, includes a complex system of towers, walls, sensors, immigrant apprehension procedures and more. As Zack Phillips reports in our cover story, SBInet costs could climb to $30 billion. Deepwater, the Coast Guard's huge effort to recapitalize its fleet, offers another example of reliance on contractors to design systems vital to core responsibilities.

A problem is that agencies don't have enough, or good enough, contracting personnel. Because it is boring work, ambitious young people want to migrate to agencies' core functions. That's one reason agencies are looking for help from others in their contracting work. The General Services Administration performs valuable governmentwide functions through its Federal Acquisition Service, as does GovWorks, a unit of the Interior Department's National Business Center. Such specialization makes sense, but accountability problems threaten the model, as Dave Perera reports in this issue.

Contracts often revolve around technologies agencies need to im-prove their operations. Now we've ratcheted up our long-standing commitment to covering technology's advance in government by launching a daily blog, Tech Insider, on our Web site. We recruited the widely experienced Allan Holmes, most recently Washington bureau chief for CIO magazine, to run it. His mission is to gather in one place all the news of interest to the people who run agencies dependent on technology, who design the systems those agencies need to modernize, who specify and purchase the requisite tools, and who provide the private sector expertise and innovation that is so vital to improving government's performance. Please visit this new venture into Web 2.0 publishing at GovernmentExecutive.com. Tim Signature

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