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Industry chief tells contractors to go public with outsourcing message

Contractors must do a better job of communicating with Congress and the public to correct several myths that cloud the debate on federal outsourcing, an official of a contractors' organization said Wednesday. Mark Filteau, president of the Florida-based contractor Johnson Controls, told an audience of service contractors that key segments of the public and Congress wrongly view them as unaccountable to the public and hostile to federal employees. Contractors must dispel these misperceptions or risk losing the public debate on outsourcing, he said. "I think it is critical to communicate to the press and public that we don't want to see federal workers abused," he said to members of the Contract Services Association. Filteau is one of two industry representatives on the Commercial Activities Panel, a 12-member board that is studying federal outsourcing issues. Filteau said he had observed four myths about contractors and public-private competition from his experience on the panel. First, he said, contractors are seen as unaccountable to the public after they win contracts, when in reality they are subject to recompetition and regular audits by federal agencies. "We are probably more accountable than most government organizations, but that is not being heard in Congress or by the general public," he said. Contractors also suffer from the perception that they are a "shadow government" that operates outside federal law and beneath the radar of Congress, said Filteau. While contractors report immense data on their activities to their federal customers, poor accounting systems make it hard to process this information at the agency level and deliver it to Congress, he said. Federal workers view contractors as enemies who make their profit by paying low wages and offering few benefits to their workers, according to Filteau. This perception can make it hard for contractors to recruit outsourced federal workers, he said. For example, when Johnson Controls won a public-private competition at Fort Lee, an Army installation in Virginia, Filteau's managers had to convince displaced public employees that they would receive fair treatment if they joined the contractor. "We have spent a significant amount of time calming these people down," said Filteau. "They have been told horror stories [about working for contractors]." Finally, Filteau said, contractors are hurt by the belief that the public-private competition process cheats federal employees. Noting that federal workers win more than half of all such competitions, Filteau said that public employees have an advantage in the competitive process because they are not subject to the rigorous accounting standards used in the private sector. Contractors must work harder at educating the public to debunk these views, Filteau said. The contracting process is "all foreign territory and deep weeds intellectually to a lot of people looking at it," Filtreau said.