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E-mail message spurs concern over OMB competitive sourcing tactics

Union officials worry OMB is pressuring the Forest Service to meet numerical targets.

An e-mail circulated to Forest Service managers last week has triggered concern that the White House is pushing the agency to open jobs to private sector competition prematurely.

The Office of Management and Budget threatened to downgrade the Agriculture Department from a yellow to a red-the lowest rating-on the competitive sourcing section of the Bush administration's quarterly management score card, unless the Forest Service allows contractors to bid on at least 100 jobs by the close of the fiscal year, according to the May 3 message, sent from headquarters to update field managers on the Forest Service's competitive sourcing program.

"As you know, OMB has never been satisfied with the lack of competitions in the Forest Service and this has been communicated to the new secretary of Agriculture," the e-mail said. Due to a potential "rating change," the memo said, the Agriculture Department "is not in the same position to help us as [it was] previously."

In the past year, the Forest Service completed a public-private competition for 1,200 information technology jobs and two large business process reengineering studies-in which the agency restructured human resources and financial management work. Together, the competition and reengineering studies are slated to produce annual savings of $91 million.

Forest Service officials had asked OMB for permission to hold off on initiating additional job competitions until fiscal 2006, which begins in October, to concentrate on implementing the IT study and the two reorganizations.

"Agency leadership was under the impression that there was OMB and Agriculture Department support" for that plan, but OMB recently "restated" that the Forest Service would be held "accountable for studying 100 full-time equivalent positions" this fiscal year, the e-mail said. This move was "unexpected," the message noted.

Forest Service officials are reviewing 700 communications positions to see if there are 100 that could be grouped together in a public-private competition, Christopher Pyron, the Forest Service's deputy chief for business operations, said in an interview earlier this week. The communications work, which ranges from public affairs to desktop publishing and graphic design, costs the agency roughly $81 million a year.

William Dougan, president of the National Federation of Federal Employees' Forest Service Council, said the plan makes little business sense and hints at the reintroduction of quotas for the number of jobs OMB would like agencies to open to competition from contractors each year. "Instead of looking at this logically, [the agency] is essentially picking these numbers out of the air," he said.

"It appears to us that the decision [has] already been made, and now the agency is scrambling to do the analysis to justify [its] decision," Dougan added. "How can the Forest Service be prepared to conduct a proper, thorough study in such a short time frame? . . . We are obviously concerned that in their haste [agency officials] will do an inadequate job of analysis."

But Pyron said if the agency can't make a strong business case for accepting bids on 100 communications jobs, there will be no contest. The review will be completed this fiscal year, but there is "no expectation" that a competition will follow, he said, adding that Forest Service, not OMB, originally proposed the numerical goal.

"We're not going to do things just to meet that target," Pyron said. "Nobody's asking us to do dumb stuff."

OMB officials also denied the return of competitive sourcing quotas, abandoned in July 2003 in favor of allowing agencies to negotiate custom goals. "OMB does not issue quotas for competitive sourcing," said Sarah Hawkins, a spokeswoman. "OMB does expect agencies to aggressively use competitive sourcing as a management tool to improve performance and generate savings for taxpayers."

The Forest Service had committed to competing 100 jobs as part of a plan to achieve a green light-the highest management score card rating-on competitive sourcing, said Jacqueline Myers, the agency's associate deputy chief for business operations. The Forest Service had sought permission to "slow down a bit," but Agriculture and OMB officials are "appropriately" encouraging the agency to keep the commitment, Pyron said.

The May 3 e-mail represented a "compilation of various conversations" and was intended as an internal note to update field managers on "hall chatter," Pyron said, adding he had not verified the accuracy of the message's contents. "One of the criticisms we've gotten from the field is that [we're] not giving enough information" he said. "We're really ratcheting up the amount of information that we're trying to send out to the field so that [managers] can see the big picture."

In doing so, "you always run the risk of . . . putting things in there that are interesting but not necessarily factual," Pyron said. He said he had no confirmation of conversations the e-mail attributes to the secretary of the Agriculture Department.

But Dougan said this misses the point. The Forest Service is reviewing communications jobs to find 100 suitable for a competition, and regardless of where the target originated, the accelerated timeframe puts the agency at risk of making "poor decisions with incomplete information in the name of meeting OMB quotas," he said.

"The targets may have been negotiated with OMB, but OMB is behind this thing," Dougan added. "If the agency had said: 'We're going to study 10 positions,' I would submit to you that that wouldn't have done it for OMB."

It's fine for agencies to set goals, and for OMB to hold them accountable on the score card for meeting those goals, as long as the targets aren't "plucked out of the air," said Alan Chvotkin, senior vice president of the Professional Services Council, an Arlington, Va.-based advocacy group representing contractors. He added that he has no knowledge of the Forest Service situation and has heard nothing to indicate that OMB is reinstating governmentwide quotas for competitive sourcing. PSC would oppose such a move, as any numerical goals should be tied to an agency's mission, Chvotkin said.

But John Threlkeld, a lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, said union members have documented multiple instances where "the numerical privatization quotas, although outlawed by Congress and ostensibly repudiated by OMB, are, unfortunately alive and well . . . resulting in [public-private competitions] being conducted for political reasons, rather than policy reasons."