Choose Your Target


n the never-never land of government outsourcing, accountability is the first victim when scandal rears its ugly head.

The uproar over security lapses at the Energy Department's Los Alamos National Laboratory offers a textbook example of how politicians pick and choose their scapegoats when management responsibilities are delegated to outside contractors.

The Los Alamos lab has been the subject of heated wrangling on Capitol Hill since early last year when allegations of espionage were lodged against a longtime scientist at the facility, who since has been fired and now faces criminal charges of mishandling classified materials but not of spying.

The battle intensified this year when it was revealed that two computer hard drives containing critical nuclear weapons secrets were missing from a storage vault at the lab but then mysteriously reappeared behind a nearby copying machine.

To congressional Republicans, the failures to adequately protect nuclear weapons data at Los Alamos clearly demonstrate the managerial incompetence of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson. The chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., has called for Richardson's resignation. "You've lost all credibility," he told the embattled Cabinet official at a hearing in June. "It's time for you to go."

Not so fast, say Democratic lawmakers. The fall should be taken instead by the contractor hired to manage the Los Alamos facility. "Because of the University of California's total inability to carry out its security obligations under its contract, we request that you terminate the department's contract with the university as soon as possible," said ranking minority member of the House Commerce Committee, John D. Dingell, D-Mich., and five Democratic colleagues in a letter to Richardson.

The pattern of partisanship is perfectly predictable-with Republicans seeking to bring down Richardson, a prominent Democrat mentioned as a possibility for the No. 2 spot on his party's presidential ticket, and Democrats closing ranks to stave off such an embarrassment. But the mad dash to assign blame in the most politically convenient manner obscures efforts to grapple constructively with the problem of effectively managing a government that increasingly farms out its work and delegates key responsibilities to independent firms or institutions.

Ironically, the University of California's role as manager at Los Alamos is one of the government's longest running and arguably most successful contractual arrangements. It dates back to 1943-two years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki-when it was decided that the quickest and most efficient way to develop the atom bomb was to put experienced administrators of scientific research in charge of the nation's weapons laboratories. That formula helped bring victory not only in World War II but in the Cold War arms race that followed.

Despite its longevity, however, the marriage between the traditions of military secrecy and academic openness has always been a troubled one. And even Richardson's Democratic allies concede that the embattled Energy Secretary has failed in his efforts to get managers of the Los Alamos facility to tighten security. "Despite all of your strong actions, the workplace culture has not changed," Dingell said in the letter. "In fact, it appears that only the efforts to hide the laboratory's lapses have been heightened."

For their part, Republican lawmakers-over Richardson's objections-have pushed through legislation creating a semi-autonomous new agency, the National Nuclear Security Administration, to oversee the protection of America's nuclear secrets.

In many ways, the thrashing about to create a new bureaucracy and to demand a new contractor, is symptomatic of a fundamental unease over the government's lack of control when it relies upon the expertise of outsiders.

"We haven't figured that out very well," asserts Donald Kettl, a professor of public affairs and political science at the University of Wisconsin (Madison). He argues that "as more of the government's work is contracted out," new kinds of talent must be brought into the government.

Rather than simply rearranging organizational charts, Kettl says there must be a new emphasis-in both training and recruitment-on strengthening the capability for overseeing contractors. "We need to find people who have the skills to manage the government we have grown into." One way to do that, Kettl adds, is to make federal hiring rules more flexible in order to capitalize on the experience of the many "people who are out there doing the government's work, but not as part of the government."

In a healthy and competitive two-party system, government goofs will always elicit howls of recrimination from an administration's political opponents and spur damage control efforts by its allies. But instead of generating smoke screens to blur the issue of accountability, government insiders need to do a better job of managing their outside associates. It might just be easier to reduce the goofs than to explain them.

Dick Kirschten is a contributing editor for National Journal.

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