More Bureaucrats, Please, Cont’d

MORE BUREAUCRATS, PLEASE, CONT’D…. Earlier today, we linked to a new story in the print edition of the Washington Monthly, arguing that the Republicans’ desired cuts to the federal workforce would, counter-intuitively, only drive government spending further through the roof. A big part of that argument rests on the government’s history with outside contractors in recent years. Contractors can be very useful and efficient; but it’s not as if you can simply replace X amount of in-house labor with X amount of contract labor and then call it a day. The very complex job of coordinating and overseeing contractors is one of the least appreciated and most overburdened functions in government today, thanks to major staffing cutbacks in the 1990s. The result: we spend way more than we need to on contracts.

The Monthly story provides a wealth of recent historical examples on this front. But a fresh trove of new evidence came out today in a report (pdf) from the bipartisan Congressional Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. The commission estimates that “tens of billions of dollars have failed to achieve their intended use in Iraq and Afghanistan,” in large part because of “federal failure to control the acquisition process.” And a lot of this has to do with undermanned offices that oversee contracts.

“For many years the government has abdicated its contracting responsibilities — too often using contractors as the default mechanism,” the report says, “without consideration for the resources needed to manage them.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, the number of government contractors in the field has often surpassed the number of people in uniform, while the workforce of “acquisitions” professionals — the technical term for people who manage contracts — has remained puny. “War by its nature entails waste. But the scale of the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan also reflects the toxic interplay of huge sums of money pumped into relatively small economies and an unprecedented reliance on contractors. This interplay is aggravated by a decimated federal acquisition workforce.”

The result is a river of red ink: “When government agencies lack experienced and qualified workers to provide oversight, the potential for waste, fraud, and abuse in contract performance increases exponentially.” And so to save money and tamp down security risks, what does the commission recommend? Adding more acquisitions staff.

The idea of hiring more workers to save money may sound counter-intuitive, but it isn’t surprising at all to many people who actually know the state of our government today.