Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Problem with Military Outsourcing

It turns out that the Army sent letters to the families of 7,000 fallen soldiers addressed simply as "Dear John Doe." It wasa printing error, they said. Mentioned just once in this article is the fact that this "error" was done by "a contractor." Somebody was hired to do this, and nobody ever looked at the letters, apparently, before they went out. Or nobody who looked at them was paid to have a clue. This would never have happened if the military had retained control of this function, I don't think. Even the worst military bureaucrats still "get it" when it comes to dealing with the honored dead, more or less. It's time for the military to start recapturing functions for dedicated civil (or military) servants rather than outsourcing them to contractors for the cheapest rates.


Raised By Republicans said...

If this convinces people to scale back the military outsourcing, great. Of course, the biggest problems have to do with failure of oversight with regards to combat and interrogation operations.

This is certainly embarrassing though. And very distressing to families that don't need any more distress.

Pombat said...

This could still have happened if the letters were taken care of 'in-house'. The problem is some idiot admin 'monkey' being left in charge of printing them all and not doing that properly, which could happen just as easily if they were military/civil servant admin monkeys as if they were contractor admin monkeys (just look at the amount of sensitive data UK civil servants in the MOD and Tax Office have managed to lose for example).

Good admin people, the non-monkey kind who are uber-efficient and don't make these kinds of mistakes, are worth their weight in gold, and are rare because most admin jobs don't pay as much as those people can get elsewhere. And until admin jobs are valued by everyone else in the organisation, and paid accordingly, rather than underpaid and looked down upon with scorn by the people who do the 'real' work, they're going to continue to be filled by the minimum-wagers, who will continue to make mistakes.

Reining in military outsourcing is essential in some cases (Blackwater anyone?), not so much in others (basic admin like these letters), but is always going to cost more money, and there's the rub - where's the money going to come from? I'm going to assume that a lot of the outsourcing is due to budget limitations / reductions.

Agreed totally that this is horrible for the families though.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Of course, the real problem is that there are 7,000 fallen soldiers. As the military strains to prevent that number from growing, mistakes like this are just going to happen more and more frequently.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Seven THOUSAND letters take up a bit of space. You'd think someone would have looked at ONE of them. Whoever did that, and someone must have, never thought to question the contents of the letter, because he/she was just paid to print it. I do think a military person might have read the letter and thought, "uh oh."

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, Dr. S touches on the one defense they can't utter. "With all the thousands of letters to dead soldiers' families we can't be criticized too badly for getting a relative handful of letters misprinted."

Pombat I've never bought the logic that proponents of outsourcing use to support the concept. They say that it saves money because private companies can operate many systems more cheaply than can the military and it relieves the military of the burden of training the people. But in many cases the contractors are former military (i.e. trained at government expense) and are "billed out" at very high rates. You seem to share my skepticism but I'm guessing you know a lot more about this than I do. Can you give me some pointers for bar room arguments?

USWest said...

I happen to have a some insight into the contracting situation. The defense that it is "cheaper" and that businesses run more "efficiently" than government is misguided. And the process by which the government takes on contractors is screwed up. Not to mention that we now have to have entire government offices staffed with contract specialists. It would we be easier to just hire government employees and be done with the entire issue.

1) RBR mentions the costs of contractors. This is true. In the very short run, a contractor may save you money. But in the long run, they do not. A trained government employee can be used to do all sorts of other tasks. They can be easily transferred from one office to another to cover shortfalls, etc. Contractors are contracted for one type of job and once that job is over, they are no longer usable. The actual employee of the contractor only gets a fraction of what the contracting company gets. So the government pays two to three times as much per head. This is fine if you were contracting only a one off, short term job. But often, these are jobs that are done over and over. So the contractor becomes a long term solution. It's like hiring a temp employee and leaving him in that status for 10 years. L3Communictions, SY Coleman, etc. are now like a fifth branch of government. We hear about the Blackwaters, which are huge. But all over government, there are small time contractors- people who do clerical tasks for instance. There are many functions that should not be contracted out at all.

2) Once in, it is very hard to get rid of contractors. You cannot consider past performance when then contract goes out to re-bid. And if the bad contractor is a minority held company, you have a huge problem getting rid of them. They then sue for discrimination and that costs money to sort out. This would be the one mechanism you could use to hold a contractor accountable. However, we are denied this to "prevent corruption" in the bidding process. But it doesn't work. This is one of the reasons that the Navy refueling tanker deal became such a big deal. You have to consider the contract proposals on their merit. Failure on a project doesn't prevent the contractor from re-bidding and being considered. And if that contractor is the low bidder, or a minority held company, you have to play games to avoid using him again. So you drive the "corruption" deeper underground. And I put "corruption" in quotes because I don't think this type of action is "corruption" it is working around unreasonable rules to get a job done right.
3) Competitive bid is something of a joke. That is formal procedure that often results in only 1 bidder. You can write the Request for Proposals (RFPs) in such a way as to exclude competitors or you can post the RFP on some obscure website where only those on the inside know where to find them. I have written about this before on the blog.
4) Contract negotiations can break down. Or, in the case of one agency I know about, the contracting office has so screwed up the paper work that an entire government installation is without tech support and has been since the beginning of the fiscal year which is October. If you had government employees, this would not be a problem.
5) Contractors have a way of being terribly inefficient when it comes to government projects. The government becomes a cash cow. And the government instigates this sometimes because it doesn't pay the contractor on time. So the Contractor has to cover costs while waiting for the government to pay up. It isn't all cupcakes and punch for the contractor either.
6) Then there is the revolving door type of corruption. Example: You have a guy who used to work as a contractor as a "resource manager" let's say. Resource Managers handle the accounting and budgeting of a given agency. they have approval power for all expenditures. So you eventually bring the guy on as a civil servant. But you start to notice that every time you want to hire a civil servant, he refuses to approve the hire. But if you want to hire a contractor at three times the price, he approves it. And he is living in a very nice home in a very expensive area. Humm . . . . can you say kick backs?
7) Contractors are being misused. They degrade the salaries and benefits of civil servants and weaken their bargaining power. Sometimes they do great work. Other times, they don't. I've seen it go both ways.

I went on Obama's transition website and I looked at the questions being posted by government employees. And many of them were about getting rid of contractors. This isn't just civil servants being jealous. There are serious problems with contractors.

If Obama is serious about giving the general public similar medical benefits to those of public servants, he could start by hiring more public servants. We need them anyway.

Pombat said...

Actually, what I was trying to get at was not even slightly explained in my post I don't think.

In my experience, the money for permanent civil/public servant staff comes from one budget pot and is relatively hard to access/justify, whilst the money for contractors comes from another budget pot which is not labelled 'people' but rather 'stuff, including printers, computers and so on' and is easier to access, with the additional benefit of it resulting in extra people doing work for you, without increasing the official 'numbers of people I have right now' reports. So what I was trying to get at was that un-outsourcing various jobs would require more money in the 'people' pot, which is tricky to organise.

Contractors do end up costing more than an inhouse person though (I think USWest mentions their billing rates), you have less oversight of what they're up to, with potentially awful results (e.g. this situation, a lot of Blackwater's activities etc), and you end up with all the kickback issues already mentioned. You also end up with an us and them mentality when it comes to contractors based on site - at the two defence places I've worked, no-one ever batted an eyelid at the phrase "filthy contractors", including contractors being introduced as e.g. "this is John, he's a filthy contractor". Having said which, this approach is partly to remind everyone of who's fully cleared government and who's not, and is part of the quasi-insulting morale/camaraderie culture peculiar to defence (you don't describe people you don't get on with as filthy contractors).

On the plus side, contractors can be dropped when you don't need them, and can provide services which are one-offs or hard to find / not overly flexible in terms of permanent staff skills - I'm thinking of dedicated programmers for example.