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Union objects to Interior Department competitive sourcing plan

More than 300 Interior Department employees, including lifeguards at Cape Hatteras, N.C., and fleet maintenance workers at Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park, could see their jobs go to the private sector under an Interior Department plan that has prompted an outcry from a federal labor leader.

But Interior is now updating this plan and department officials believe that some of these civil servants will be allowed to compete with the private sector to keep their jobs.

The dispute centers on Interior's plan to meet a White House target for opening federal jobs to the private sector. Specifically, Interior must use competitive sourcing techniques on 15 percent of all department jobs considered "commercial in nature" by October 2003. As part of this plan, Interior officials identified more than 340 jobs that could be shifted to the private sector by direct conversion, a process in which federal employees are not allowed to compete for their jobs.

The use of direct conversion shows Interior is trying to fulfill the target by avoiding public-private job competitions, according to Bobby Harnage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal employee union.

"It is transparently clear that the department's intent is less on achieving savings, superior services, and giving taxpayers a better return on their investment than in taking the path of least resistance--through direct conversions--in expeditiously achieving the administration's outsourcing levy," he wrote in an April 15 letter to Angela Styles, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy in the Office of Management and Budget.

Harnage called on Styles to hold Interior's plan in abeyance and to reconsider OMB's competitive sourcing targets.

But Interior is already rethinking where it will use direct conversions after OMB approved an alternative to the process earlier this month. The alternative method allows work involving 10 or fewer positions to remain in-house if it can be done more efficiently by federal employees.

"A number of our bureaus are going back and re-evaluating the methodologies to look at how the new study technique might facilitate and benefit a variety of different activities that are scheduled," said Michael Del-Colle, director of Interior's competitive sourcing center.

An AFGE official was pleased with this news, but added the Interior plan should be revised to allow for more union participation in the process. "While the newer method is not perfect, it certainly is a better way of going about things than [direct conversions]," said Brendan Danaher, a policy analyst with AFGE.

Interior will require its bureaus to justify any direct conversions with a business case analysis. Some of the jobs currently earmarked for direct conversion are also vacant, so outsourcing them would have no impact on the existing workforce, according to Del-Colle.

The union's fears about direct conversion may be inflated. For example, Harnage noted that Interior's Office of Surface Mining planned to fulfill its competitive sourcing target entirely through direct conversions. While this is true, the office only needs to convert seven jobs to meet the target.

In addition, Interior's Bureau of Land Management is scheduling no direct conversions but plans to hold public-private job competitions on 364 jobs. In all, about 340 Interior jobs are slated for direct conversion and more than 3,000 jobs are scheduled to be put up for public-private competition according to Interior's plan, which covers every bureau except the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

OMB will not revise or put a hold on Interior's plan, according to spokeswoman Amy Call, who added the department was making "steady progress" on its competitive sourcing program.

Other Interior employees scheduled for job competitions include 88 mapmakers at the Bureau of Land Management and 17 groundskeepers at President's Park in Washington, which includes Lafayette Square and the ellipse just off the White House grounds.