February 25, 2010
by Ed O'Keefe
The Department of Homeland Security said this week that it employs more private contractors than federal employees, an admission that officials blamed on the department's quick establishment seven years ago and the federal government's burdensome hiring process.
DHS officials informed Senate staffers this month that it employs roughly 200,000 contractors and about 188,000 federal employees. The figure does not include uniformed members of the Coast Guard, which is one of the department's 22 agencies.
"That raises a question of whether it's the most efficient use of taxpayer money, but also the question of who's making critical decisions at the department," Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) said Wednesday during a hearing of the homeland security committee on the department's annual budget requests. "Is it private contractors, or is it full-time federal employees?" He called the figures "shocking and unacceptable."
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano called the estimates "a high number" but would not say, when asked by Lieberman, whether she thought the figure was too high.
"I think the number illustrates a problem, or an issue we have to work on," Napolitano told senators. "The department was stood up quickly, and in order to accomplish the many missions that it has, contracting was a mechanism to be used."
Paul Light, a Brookings Institution scholar on the federal government, disputed the DHS estimates, and said the number of contractors is likely to be much higher.
"I think it's a larger number, particularly when you start counting the subcontractors and the state and local employees who are working under grants and contracts," Light said. He authored a 2006 study that estimated that DHS created 140,000 contracting positions from 2002 to 2005, most for operations related to the Bush administration's response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
DHS agencies are reviewing the balance of government and contracting positions to determine which jobs should be "insourced," or converted to the federal payroll, Napolitano said. Her own office hopes to cut contractor support by 40 percent, according to the department's 2011 budget requests.
Stan Soloway, president of the Professional Services Council, applauded Napolitano's review but said DHS should focus less on the number of contractors and more on the skills they provide.
"I could have 100,000 federal employees, but if I don't have 100,000 federal employees with the right skills, that doesn't necessarily solve the challenge," Soloway said. His group is a national trade association for contracting firms, some of which will probably be hurt by the Obama administration's contracting reforms.
In addition to the contract review, the DHS is revisiting agreements exceeding $1 million as part of the Obama administration's contracting reforms. The Office of Management and Budget plans to provide more guidance to federal agencies next month on government functions that contractors can no longer conduct, an OMB spokesman said Wednesday.
Despite the planned contracting cuts, Napolitano also cited the government's lengthy hiring process as a motivation for the department's previous reliance on contractors.
Federal labor unions that have long fought DHS's use of contractors applauded congressional attention on the issue.
"We have been and continue to be concerned that the money spent on these spurious contracting-out initiatives could have been more wisely spent on equipment, training and right-sizing staffing at a number of airports," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents DHS workers.