Looking at the federal contracting landscape in 2010

By Dorothy Ramienski
Internet Editor

The federal government will need to rely on a considerable amount of contractors in 2010, despite the Obama administration’s goal of reducing its dependence on them.

That is one of the Daily Debrief’s Bold Predictions for the coming year.

Rob Burton is a partner with the Veneble Law firm and a former Deputy Administrator at the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.

He said, for the most part, he agrees with the fact that contractors will still be needed, but also sees some changes ahead.

More importantly, he noted that this is the era of the blended workforce, which has benefits as well as setbacks.

“What concerns me is that, right now, there appears to be the perception that this is a bad thing, and I don’t think it’s bad at all. I think that the partnering between industry and the government is a very good thing and the government needs the private sector, especially the acquisition workforce. I think, generally speaking, it’s being done well and that the private sector is assisting the government where it really needs help.”

This does not mean, however, that certain concerns aren’t well-founded. Burton said he understands why the current administration is pushing for specific functions to stay in-house.

In addition, he said there are certainly examples of contracting gone amuck.

“I think, generally speaking, the government is using the private sector in a rational way and in a needed way. I do think . . . that the government will continue to rely on the private sector just as much [this year] as in the past, but you cannot dismiss the fact that the Obama administration and this Congress are making a very concerted effort to bring positions back into the government.”

Burton said this will not necessarily mean costs savings, but it has more to do with policy and who actually performs the work.

He asserts that insourcing, as the practice has been labeled, is already alive and well, though it is not without its challenges.

“It’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors. Somebody’s got to do the work and the bottom line is, the government needs more people and whether they get them in house or from the private sector — we can debate that and decide which functions should be performed by who — but the bottom line is, the government needs help and needs a lot of it.”

President Obama’s administration does appear to be very committed to the practice of insourcing, though Burton said this might conflict with another one of their initiatives — increased competition.

“Insourcing is not competitive. You’re basically pulling functions back into the government without competition. I think the administration is going to find it difficult to do — to increase competition while, at the same time, actively insourcing functions. They’re goals that are really competing against each other.”

The Office of Management and Budget is currently working on guidance that would define what functions are inherently governmental and what are critical functions for the federal agencies. Burton said he feels it is going to be interesting to watch how everything plays out.

“I think the focus in 2010 is going to be on the term ‘critical function’, because the administration is saying — if you, as an agency, decide that something is a critical function it really should generally be performed by the government. ‘critical function’ will definitely be broader than ‘inherently governmental’.”

An additional challenge that comes with those terms is that the private sector often has experience in certain areas, as well.

“You can use acquisition as a good example. There are so many things that could be performed by the private sector short of the actual decision making and award of a contract. Obviously that’s inherently governmental. But you could have a fair amount of support in that decision-making process that, arguably, could be performed by the private sector.”

The other problem is experience. Burton said, often, the private sector has it where the government does not.

“I think the administration and Congress need to be very careful because the last thing you want are, for example, the Department of Defense wants to hire 9,000 new folks. Most of those will probably be college kids and the last thing you need are 9,000 untrained workers showing up at your doorstep. . . . It’s probably the last thing that the government needs right now is to have a lot of unskilled workers. I think the focus, initially, this year has got to be on training the workforce that the government has.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however.

“The good news is that I think the administration is definitely putting workforce up there as the top priority. That’s a good thing.”

Read more of Federal News Radio’s Bold Predictions.