Lawmakers question EEOC plan to outsource service center

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has jumped the gun by asking contractors to submit plans for developing a national customer service center before securing funding for the center, lawmakers said Thursday.

On March 8, the EEOC published a notice on FedBizOpps, the official register of all government procurements, requesting proposals from private companies interested in establishing and running a pilot "contact center." The center would serve as a clearinghouse for public inquiries currently handled at the agency's field offices, providing "timely and consistent information about EEOC programs, products and services," the announcement explained.

But lawmakers have yet to approve any money for the project, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., warned EEOC Chairwoman Cari Dominguez at a House Justice Appropriations Subcommittee hearing. The agency's decision to solicit contractor proposals for the center seems premature, he said.

Dominguez defended the solicitation, describing the request for proposals as a way of "exploring the feasibility" and "considering the concept" of a privately operated contact center. Agency officials "informed bidders that this is all contingency planning," she told lawmakers. Dominguez requested a $3 million increase in the EEOC's fiscal 2005 budget to help support the national service center and other facets of an agency "repositioning."

By asking for proposals the EEOC is doing more than simply considering the establishment of a contact center, said Wolf, the subcommittee chairman, and Rep. Jose Serrano, D-N.Y., the subcommittee's ranking member. "You're going ahead," Serrano said.

In reports accompanying fiscal 2004 budget legislation, lawmakers specifically warned the EEOC not to move forward on any reform efforts without consulting Congress. Agency officials decided to try out a national information center as part of a broader plan to restructure and streamline the EEOC, and, consequently, must keep lawmakers informed of any developments, he said.

The EEOC sent the appropriations subcommittee a letter describing the status of various reform proposals, including the contact center, in November 2003, Dominguez said. But agency officials also should have informed members of Congress about the decision to outsource the center because lawmakers might have wanted to hold a hearing to discuss the matter, Wolf said.

"To me, the sight and the sound of a contractor means major change," Serrano said. He said he is worried that the EEOC's latest move will alienate the agency's supporters, while simultaneously providing fuel for critics. "You can't afford any mistakes because there are too many people who would like to see you fall," he cautioned Dominguez.

The EEOC's proposal to establish a contact center has attracted controversy from the outset. The National Academy of Public Administration, a congressionally chartered nonprofit organization, recommended the central customer service center, along with various other reforms, in a February 2003 report. But talk of establishing such a center predated the NAPA report, according to an agency spokesman.

Proponents argue that a national contact center would alleviate strain on local EEOC offices. Some offices are not equipped to handle the volume of inquiries they receive, according to the NAPA report. In addition, simple inquiries bog down investigators and attorneys in field offices. By sending the inquiries to a national clearinghouse, the agency would free up time for field office employees to concentrate on working cases, analyzing trends and taking proactive steps to combat workplace discrimination, contact center advocates say.

But opponents argue that the information center will not improve the EEOC's efficiency or help the agency provide better customer service. Many of the questions forwarded to the center will end up back at the field offices, said Gabrielle Martin, president of the National Council of EEOC Locals No. 216, part of the American Federation of Government Employees.

EEOC commissioners in early November 2003 approved a plan to let a private company help design a contact center. The company would then operate the center for a two-year trial period. This decision to "competitively outsource" the center has deepened controversy over the project.

The EEOC considered a number of options before choosing to outsource work at the center, said Cynthia Pierre, director of field management programs at the EEOC. Pierre headed a work group responsible for advising agency officials on the feasibility and benefits of setting up a contact center.

After surveying field offices and conducting market research, the work group concluded that a contact center could help handle the EEOC's high volume of routine public inquiries. The survey demonstrated that 61 percent of calls received by EEOC offices do not relate to potential charges of discrimination, Pierre said.

For example, 22 percent of unsolicited callers request general information, and these calls could be answered with an automated response, Pierre explained. EEOC employees are preparing replies to commonly asked questions and training manuals for contact center staff, she said. Should the agency decide to halt the project, these materials would still come in handy, she said.

The EEOC does not have many of the in-house resources needed to set up an effective customer service center, Pierre said. For instance, the agency lacks the technology for the center, she said. To set up the customer information service using only in-house resources, the EEOC would have to spend $12 million, she said. This would not include the price of staffing the center. In contrast, a contract-operated center would cost less than $3 million to get off the ground.

But Martin and other AFGE officials said they are not sure where these cost estimates are coming from. They said the EEOC lacks the authority to outsource the contact center without first holding a public-private competition.

The decision to outsource the work amounts to a "direct conversion," where agencies hand over commercial work to a contractor without allowing in-house employees a chance to keep the jobs, AFGE argued in a letter to a Bush administration official. The Office of Management and Budget's May 2003 revisions to Circular A-76, the competitive sourcing rule book, prohibit direct conversions unless agencies ask the administration for a waiver.

According to EEOC officials, the contact center involves new work, and no federal employees will lose their jobs as a result of outsourcing the project. The EEOC staff has "more than enough to do" without worrying about working at the contact center, Pierre said.

In a March 24 letter to OMB's deputy director for management, Clay Johnson, AFGE President John Gage and Vice President Andrea Brooks argued that the EEOC has the capacity to build the center internally and, therefore, must let federal employees bid on the work or request an exemption from the A-76 rules.

"The decision by the EEOC's management to establish a privatized call center seems driven entirely by a self-imposed in-house personnel ceiling," the letter stated. "The use of such a questionable management practice poorly serves both taxpayers and the agency's stakeholders."

OMB has received AFGE's letter, an administration official said, and has contacted the EEOC in an attempt to "get a better understanding of what result [the agency is] trying to reach" by establishing a call center. "After receiving a full briefing we will consider our options," the official added.

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