Homeland Security contractors outnumber civilian employees

Leaders of a Senate government oversight committee on Wednesday said they were "astounded" to learn that contractors outnumber civilian employees at the Homeland Security Department, and expressed concern that contractors could be performing inherently governmental work.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairman and ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, thanked DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano for responding to requests that the department quantify its reliance on contractors. But they said they were disturbed to learn DHS employs more than 200,000 contractors, compared with just 188,000 federal employees, excluding uniformed members of the Coast Guard.

"The sheer number of DHS contractors currently on board again raises the question of whether DHS itself is in charge of its programs and policies, or whether it inappropriately has ceded core decisions to contractors," Lieberman and Collins said in a letter to Napolitano.

The senators asked for a unit-by-unit breakdown of contractors within the department, but warned that regardless of that breakdown, the challenge of overseeing so many contractors is likely to strain the ongoing transformation of DHS into an agency with strong, central management.

"We believe that the current balance between federal employees and contractors at DHS is unacceptable, untenable and unsustainable," they wrote.

DHS officials are aware of the problem and are taking steps to properly balance the department's workforce, the senators noted. Homeland Security's fiscal 2011 budget reflects cost savings from the conversion of contractor positions to federal jobs. Lieberman and Collins said that while cost should not be the only factor in determining who should perform work, savings are beneficial.

"The fundamental question in deciding whether a federal employee should perform a task, or whether the task may appropriately be assigned to a contractor, should not simply be which option is cheapest, but rather whether or not the government's interests are best served by having the work performed by federal employees," the senators said. "Nonetheless it is notable that the shift to a more appropriate employee-to-contractor ratio may well also save the department and the taxpayers money."

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