Forest Service considers competing more than 10,000 jobs

The Forest Service is weighing plans to let private contractors compete for the jobs of more than 10,000 employees, including those in its wildfire program, to meet White House competitive sourcing goals.

The jobs of 2,000 accountants and financial managers and up to 10,000 firefighters and other fire program employees could be on the line in fiscal 2005, according to a draft Forest Service document obtained by Smaller numbers of data analysts, computer application specialists, and vehicle managers could face competition in 2004.

In a nine-page draft proposal, shared with regional Forest Service officials on June 9, the agency outlines its competitive sourcing plans through 2007. The proposal is designed to help the Forest Service meet the Bush administration's long-term goal of putting half of its "commercial" jobs-roughly 11,000 positions-up for public-private competition. But if the fire program is put on the auction block, as the plan envisions, an additional 5,000 to 10,000 Forest Service employees could face competition. Under this scenario, up to 20,000 Forest Service employees-or two out of three workers at the 30,000-person agency-could be forced to compete for their jobs.

Thomas Mills, the Forest Service's deputy director for business operations, stressed that no final decisions had been made and said the document reflects the agency's ongoing efforts to hold competitions in a strategic way. "It's still a draft, and we're still working out what kinds of studies we want to undertake in 2004 and 2005," he said Friday.

In one case, Mills said the agency was revising plans outlined in the proposal. The Forest Service now is moving away from holding a nationwide competition involving 650 law enforcement personnel in 2004, in contrast to what the plan states. "The current inclination is we would not include law enforcement on the 2004 list," he said. More changes could follow as Mills' office sorts through feedback from regional officials on the plan, which were due June 27.

In some ways, the Forest Service document reflects a process going on across government as agencies craft plans to reach the Bush administration's long-term goal of competing half of all commercial jobs, or 425,000 jobs governmentwide. On July 2, the Defense Department's Business Initiatives Council will meet to discuss how the Pentagon will reach the 50 percent target, which will put 226,000 jobs out for bid, according to Joe Sikes, director of the office of competitive sourcing and privatization at Defense.

The plan also shows how the Forest Service is trying to make competitive sourcing fit its needs. Competing the entire $1.5 billion fire program could yield significant savings for the agency, according to the plan. "Since fire is over 25 percent of our budget and is interwoven into most of our programs, fire must eventually be studied," states the plan.

Some agency officials believe holding a single competition on the fire program could be the best way to keep competitive sourcing from disrupting the Forest Service's firefighting mission. The Forest Service pulls thousands of maintenance workers and other employees off their normal jobs to fight summer wildfires. But many members of this firefighting "militia," could be included in other job competitions and potentially outsourced to the private sector, depriving the agency of needed firefighters.

"Fire has so many tentacles out in the rest of the organization that we keep bumping up against it," said Mills in an April interview with Government Executive. "So one answer might be let's just study that and we'll settle it."

Competing the entire fire program could be complicated. The Forest Service fights wildfires alongside employees from four Interior Department agencies, the Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs, National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Service. The plan envisions including employees from these agencies in the competition, potentially creating a rare joint job competition involving multiple agencies.

Mills said he had only "very, very preliminary" discussions about the proposal with officials from other firefighting agencies.

A competition on the fire program also would come on the heels of a massive hiring campaign to beef up the federal firefighting corps. In 2001, federal agencies scrambled to hire roughly 6,000 new fire employees, financed by $1.5 billion in new funds from Congress. Appropriators approved the funding hike after the 2000 fire season, which scorched 8.4 million acres of land. In California, the Forest Service is still looking to hire 500 wildland firefighters, according to Dan Duefrene, regional vice president of the Forest Service Council of the National Federation of Federal Employees (NFFE), a federal union.

On Friday Mills said it would be "premature" to say which fire employees might be included in a competition, or whether a competition of the fire program would even be held at all.

The plan envisions holding small competitions on roughly 150 fire employees in 2004, including employees that run the national radio cache at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. "The recommended 2004 studies will help us gain experience prior to a major study of the entire program," states the plan.

The plan comes as congressional appropriators have moved to slow the competitive sourcing program at the Forest Service and other land management agencies. The House Appropriations Committee has approved legislation that would block funds for new competitions at the Forest Service and most Interior agencies in fiscal 2004.

Members of NFFE's Forest Service Council also have tried to lobby Mills and other officials to scale back its competitive sourcing plan. William Dougan, president of the Forest Service Council, said the agency lacks the resources to hold competitions on so many employees, particularly the large competitions envisioned in 2005. "I personally don't believe the agency has the resources available to them to succeed to do a good job of studying that many [employees] in one fiscal year," he said. "We're struggling this year trying to study 3,000-odd employees."

The Forest Service is competing between 3,500 to 3,900 jobs this year, including a nationwide study involving 1,200 information technology employees.

The union supports an effort by Forest Service management to get competitive sourcing credit for a business process re-engineering study, in which federal employees streamline themselves without facing private sector competition. The Forest Service is planning to ask the Office of Management and Budget for credit to stage a study involving 900 human resources employees in fiscal 2005, according to the plan. "The union is pleased that [management] endorses BPR studies," said Dougan.

The Forest Service also may explore a "reverse A-76" study in 2005, in which work performed by contractors is studied to see if it should be returned to federal employees. Recreation site maintenance could be a good candidate for such a study, which could help morale inside the workforce, according to the plan. "The result of a reverse A-76 study could be a morale booster for employees since one possible outcome is to bring jobs back into the agency that are now contracted," states the plan.

The Forest Service decided against competing 542 employees who currently handle maintenance at recreation sites because these employees have significant interactions with the public, according to Mills. "There's a lot of customer interaction at Forest Service campgrounds, and one of our criteria for deciding what to study is how much [employees] deal with the public," he said. "We'd like certain [jobs] to be done by people wearing a Forest Service uniform."

The Forest Service will also try to get competitive sourcing credit from OMB for any "inherently governmental" positions in a study area, even though these jobs would not actually face private sector competition. By law, "inherently governmental" work must be performed by federal employees and is off-limits to competitive sourcing. OMB did not answer requests Friday to clarify whether this was a legitimate way to earn competitive sourcing credit. "If it's not appropriate we won't count [the positions]," said Mills.

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