Legislation would put a lid on job competitions at Interior, Forest Service

Competitive sourcing programs at the Forest Service and most Interior Department agencies would grind to a halt next year under legislation approved by a key House appropriations subcommittee.

The measure, Section 335 in the appropriations bill for Interior and related agencies, would block funding for new public-private job competitions in fiscal 2004. Agencies would be allowed to finish competitions begun in 2002 and 2003, but could not start new competitions under the provision.

"None of the funds in this act can be used to initiate any new competitive sourcing studies," the measure states.

The funding freeze grows out of a concern shared by many members of the Interior appropriations subcommittee that competitive sourcing could push valued civil servants out of government, according to Rep. James Moran, D-Va., a subcommittee member.

"The subcommittee simply wants to make sure that we're not going too far, too fast, in terms of outsourcing, so we do not lose professional expertise in the land management agencies and Park Service particularly," he said. The high cost of staging job competitions-the Forest Service plans to spend $10 million on competitive sourcing in fiscal 2003-also alarmed the subcommittee, according to Moran.

Trent Duffy, a spokesman with the Office of Management and Budget, would not comment on the specific provision, but said the administration has opposed efforts to exempt agencies from competitive sourcing in the past. A senior OMB official criticized the subcommittee for interfering with the administration's management agenda.

"This seems to be another attempt to shut down a portion of the management agenda," said the official. "Now is the wrong time to harm the important studies taking place at the National Park Service to improve service in the parks while providing best value to the taxpayer."

Scott Cameron, Interior's deputy assistant secretary for performance and management, said the department was trying to keep a lid on competitive sourcing costs. "We are working very hard to keep these costs reasonable at Interior," he said. In fiscal 2003, Interior bureaus will spend $4.4 million on competitive sourcing, according to the subcommittee's report on Section 335.

The provision would halt funding for new competitions at all agencies under the jurisdiction of the subcommittee, which besides the Forest Service and most Interior agencies, includes the Smithsonian Institution and several small offices at the Energy Department. Interior's Bureau of Reclamation is funded by a different subcommittee and would not be affected by the freeze, according to House staffers.

The freeze would exempt hundreds of employees at Interior and the Forest Service from job competitions. The Forest Service plans to start competitions on roughly 1,800 employees in fiscal 2004, according to Thomas Mills, deputy chief of business operations at the Forest Service. At Interior, roughly 1,500 employees are slated to face private sector competition in fiscal 2004, said Cameron. The measure would not halt job competitions at Energy, because the offices affected are so small, according to Dennis O'Brien, Energy's director of competitive sourcing.

Both Interior and the Forest Service have several ongoing competitions that could still be finished under the provision. The Forest Service is working to complete competitions on roughly 3,500 employees, including a study involving 1,200 information technology employees, according to Mills.

Interior is also trying to finish competitions involving 3,500 employees by the end of fiscal 2003. The agency has competed about 1,700 positions so far with no reductions in force, said Cameron. "Not a single Interior Department employee has been involuntarily separated from public service as a result of the studies we've done up to now," he said.

Cameron said some Interior employees have benefited from competitive sourcing. The agency held a direct conversion involving a dozen or so part-time lifeguards in North Carolina and Florida, and these employees now earn more money in the private sector. "In some cases people have been better off. Those very same people ended up working for private lifeguard companies and ended up with better pay."

Section 335 also requires Interior and the Forest Service to provide detailed reports on all job competitions held to date by March 1, 2004. To date, neither the Forest Service nor Interior has requested specific funding for competitive sourcing. Instead, they have shifted or "re-programmed" funds from other budget accounts, potentially affecting programs at the agencies, according to the subcommittee.

"The committee has thus been unable to evaluate the costs, benefits and effectiveness of these initiatives or to weigh the priority that these initiatives should receive as compared with the important ongoing programs funded in this bill," said report language on the measure.

Mills said the Forest Service would work to provide the subcommittee with better information on its competitive sourcing program. "We understand the importance of being as transparent as we can about the cost of our competitive sourcing activities," he said.

Congressional Democrats also have questioned the costs of competitive sourcing. On June 16, 111 House Democrats sent a letter to OMB protesting the high costs of the Park Service competitive sourcing plan.

A federal employee union representing thousands of Forest Service employees applauded the subcomittee's action. "To proceed with studies in 2004 without establishing cost savings for taxpayers is wrong," said Randy Erwin, assistant to the president of the National Federation of Federal Employees.

The full Appropriations Committee will consider the Interior bill next week, according to House staffers.

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