Army Corps nixes public-private contest for 2,000 jobs

Agency will reorganize employees into a “high-performing organization” and pledges the process won’t involve layoffs.

The Army Corps of Engineers has called off a planned public-private job competition for the operation and maintenance of locks and dams on the nation's waterways, and instead will go through an internal reorganization to make operations more efficient, officials announced Monday.

The Corps had been planning to conduct a competition under the Office of Management and Budget's Circular A-76 to determine whether federal employees or contractors were better equipped to do the lock and dam work, now performed by about 2,000 federal employees. For the past two fiscal years, lawmakers have blocked funding for a pre-competition study, though, causing the process to stall.

Monday's announcement, distributed via e-mail by Corps Strategic Sourcing Program Manager Ray Navidi, essentially will allow the Corps to proceed with the public side of a competition by assessing how the work is performed currently and reorganizing the workforce into a new structure called a high-performing organization.

The Corps experimented with the HPO model in a logistics management reorganization, and Navidi wrote that "OMB granted our request to not compete O&M" based on the success of that experience.

"The end result will be that while some work processes may change, no O&M employees are at risk of losing their jobs," Navidi told employees, stressing that the goal will be to make operations more efficient and effective. Reached by phone, he said employees lost through attrition might not be replaced, to allow the agency flexibility if the HPO calls for fewer workers. He said it is too early to predict whether early retirement options or buyouts might be used.

Navidi said a Corps official has solicited nominees for the HPO development team, which will include rank-and-file employees "who are actually involved in the work" and stakeholders who rely on inland waterways. The makeup probably will be announced in December, he said. The team likely will consist of a core group of about 10 people and additional representatives from each of eight geographical divisions. The whole process will begin in January and last 18 months.

Questioned on the cost savings expected from the process, Navidi said it was hard to tell at this stage. "HPO has its own benefits.…The cost of conducting this study isn't as much as [that for] an A-76 [competition]," he said. "I expect the cost savings to be maybe comparable to A-76, but I don't think it's going to be [as much]."

The American Federation of Government Employees, which for the past two years has lobbied hard against opening the work to competition from the private sector, welcomed the news that the A-76 process would not be used.

But in a statement on the decision, union officials warned this would not be the end of the road. "If the HPO would compromise the safety and security of the locks and dams or punish the locks and dams workforce, AFGE members will work with their lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats alike, to shut it down -- just as surely as they shut down the privatization review," officials said.

"AFGE members intend to participate vigorously in the HPO process," the officials said. "After all, nobody knows better how to make the locks and dams as effective and efficient as they are safe and secure as [the Corps'] rank-and-file locks and dams personnel."