DHS under fire for use of consultants in job competition

Four senators have asked the Homeland Security Department to clarify the role private consultants are playing in a public-private competition involving more than 1,100 immigration services jobs.

Four senators recently asked the Homeland Security Department to clarify the role private consultants are playing in a public-private competition involving more than 1,100 immigration services jobs.

Grant Thornton LLP, a Chicago-based consulting firm, is helping the Citizenship and Immigration Services, part of DHS, design and conduct an A-76 study of immigration information officer and contact representative positions. The public-private competition, announced in August and scheduled for completion by the end of June 2004, prompted an outcry from Democratic lawmakers and federal employee union members.

Opponents of the A-76 study claim immigration information officers and contact representatives perform inherently governmental work because they serve as the first line of defense against false immigration applications. These workers also have extensive training and on-the-job experience that contractors would have difficulty matching, the opponents say.

In an Oct. 22 letter to DHS Secretary Tom Ridge, several lawmakers demanded more information on consultants' involvement in the A-76 study, and an estimate of related expenses. The letter, signed by Sens. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., asked DHS to explain why it is "unable to conduct a competition without the use of so many consultants."

Grant Thornton's participation in the immigration officer project dates back to when CIS was still part of the Justice Department, according to the lawmakers. Justice officials originally asked the consulting company to assess the "potential benefit of outsourcing [immigration officers]," the letter said. The consultants' research continued after CIS moved to Homeland Security, the senators said.

But according to CIS spokesman Russ Knocke, CIS asked consultants for help only in the summer, after officials reached a decision to conduct the A-76 study. Grant Thornton "was not a factor at all in the decision to move forward," he said.

Currently Grant Thornton is acting as a "guide" in the competition, Knocke explained. "The [A-76] requirements are very detailed," he said. "CIS has not gone through a process like this before, so we contracted with Grant Thornton to make sure we are meeting the requirements."

CIS has also hired advisors from Booz Allen Hamilton, a McLean, Va.-based management consulting company. All consultants will merely help CIS "navigate the process," Knocke said.

The senators asked Ridge to provide a list of research projects completed by the consultants and the costs associated with those services. Lawmakers also asked for any reports, presentations or other records detailing the consultants' work. If there are no written records, the senators demanded an explanation of "what exactly the contractor did to earn its fees."

By using consultants during the bidding process itself, CIS may bias the competition, the lawmakers added. "An excessive reliance on contractors may impede the ability of DHS management to make an independent decision-one that maintains as a primary focus the department's central mission of protecting the nation," they wrote.

But Knocke said the advisers should not influence the A-76 study's outcome. "It's a fair and healthy competition," he said. "We're committed to that." He added that CIS is only using consultants "where it's clearly appropriate."

Federal agencies often ask consultants for help on competitive sourcing projects, according to Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president and counsel at the Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va.-based contractors association. The process of conducting an A-76 study is "fairly labor intensive," he said, and consultants can provide useful analysis.

In addition, agencies sometimes hire consultants to help the in-house team prepare a bid, Chvotkin said. "Otherwise you really have a nonlevel playing field. If you looked at the quality of the submissions, you would have an imbalance."

The Federal Aviation Administration uses consultants for advice on competitive sourcing. For instance, the agency hired Grant Thornton to conduct research on the feasibility of placing flight service station jobs up for bids. The FAA reauthorization bill-still the subject of extensive debate on Capitol Hill-could end up with language preventing the agency from completing planned A-76 studies.

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