DHS Has More Contractors than Employees

It should come as a surprise to no one familiar with how our government works that the Department of Homeland Security employs more contractors than civil servants.  Excepting, of course, Joe Lieberman and Susan Collins.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins call the hiring situation at the Department of Homeland Security ‘unacceptable.’.

Sens. Joseph Lieberman and Susan Collins call the hiring situation at the Department of Homeland Security ‘unacceptable.’.

The Department of Homeland Security has more contractors working for it than full-time employees, a situation two members of Congress said Tuesday was “unacceptable, untenable and unsustainable.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman, the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and ranking Republican Susan Collins said they were “astounded” to learn there are more than 200,000 contractor employees at the department.

The civilian work force of Homeland Security numbers 188,000, according to an estimate provided to the senators by Homeland Security.

In a letter sent Tuesday to the agency’s Secretary Janet Napolitano, Lieberman and Collins said the figure “raises the question of whether DHS itself is in charge of its programs and policies, or whether it inappropriately has ceded core decisions to contractors.”

The same situation exists at many if not most Defense Department facilities in the National Capitol Region.  Going back to, oh, the Carter Administration, decision-makers figured out that contractors bring loads of experience, usually gained from within government, but don’t come with the baggage of unionization, guaranteed pay increases, pension obligations, training requirements, and all the other undesirable baggage of civil service employees.

This isn’t without drawbacks.  Despite the preconceptions, most civil servants put in an honest day’s work and often then some.  Further, civil service employees have an institutional memory and loyalty that contractors often lack.

At the same time, contractors bring flexibility. They can be hired and fired and moved around an agency without the arcane drama of the OPM process. Additionally, because they’re usually hired on annual contracts, they not only have a powerful incentive to actually do their job — or, indeed, pretty much anything they’re asked to do by the hiring authorities — but they can be let go the minute their particular skills are no longer required.

As to Lieberman and Collins’ core concern, it’s largely unfounded.  In my experience, the strategic decision-making is still being made by government employees.  But, quite often, they’re at the mercy of the expertise of hired contractors for critical information.

The more legitimate worry is that the tail is wagging the dog.  There’s a huge core of people in the DC area whose jobs depend on continual awarding of these massive contracts.  Their influence on the policy process, through lobbying efforts and campaign contributions, is potentially quite problematic.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Dave Schuler says:

    Further, civil service employees have an institutional memory and loyalty that contractors often lack.

    I’m not so sure that this is true. For many of my clients I, an outsider, am their institutional memory.

    Employees are fired, retire, change departments, find greener pastures. Outsiders may remain available for as long as they’re still needed.

  2. Raoul says:

    From my experience contracting ends up costing more; and it is not because of the salaries.

  3. arcs says:

    don’t come with the baggage of unionization, guaranteed pay increases, pension obligations, training requirements, and all the other undesirable baggage of civil service employees.

    Much of that baggage has indeed been stripped in the competitive bidding process.

    They can be hired and fired and moved around an agency without the arcane drama of the OPM process. Additionally, because they’re usually hired on annual contracts, they not only have a powerful incentive to actually do their job — or, indeed, pretty much anything they’re asked to do by the hiring authorities — but they can be let go the minute their particular skills are no longer required.

    Not so true. Yes, contractors have incentive to do their job, if they want to be prospective bidders in future solicitations. No, it’s not always so easy to hire, fire, move around or terminate contractors. They are, after all, under contract, usually to provide a given set of work, product, or services at a given set of locations. Modifying or terminating contracts, even for cause, has significant costs.

  4. James Joyner says:

    Yes, contractors have incentive to do their job, if they want to be prospective bidders in future solicitations.

    Since contracts are almost always for one year, they almost always have that incentive. And you can fire individual people and demand replacements from the firm.

    They are, after all, under contract, usually to provide a given set of work, product, or services at a given set of locations. Modifying or terminating contracts, even for cause, has significant costs.

    But, again, the contracts are bid annually. So, managers should have a pretty decent clue what they’ll need during the term. And, because they’re up for renewal in a matter of months — the bidding process starts well before termination — there’s a strong incentive to cooperate.

    I’m talking mostly about the individual employee level. If you’ve hired, say, Booz-Allen-Hamilton to supply 25 people to do a large staffing project, you’re in a different situation. But still a much more flexible one than trying to deal with a whole department of civil servants.

  5. JKB says:

    Sure the individual contract employees cooperate, all the way to de facto personal services. Defense is better at identifying and separating contractors than the non-defense side but mostly because they’ve been beat up in the past and are under constant scrutiny. Question is whether DHS has contractors that are not readily discernible from employees? If the Senators are serious they would demand an investigation into whether the DHS contractors are being treated as employees in work assignment and management, i.e., personal services.

    Just before I left government I was developing an A-76 (public-private competition) feasibility study. While the study didn’t impact HQ employees I was surprised when I learn that the HQ staffer who was to shepherd the study to the Agency was a contractor. More surprising was when I learned that the person I had to clear the study through, an employee who had retired and returned, was not an employee but a contractor. I had been working with both for several weeks before I learned this in a casual conversation. But then I don’t know if the study senior management signed off on was the one I wrote since it went through contractors before they saw it.

    A-76 is one of those areas everyone wants someone with expertise but having contractors as the experts on public-private competitions is a bit odd in my opinion.

  6. James Joyner says:

    More surprising was when I learned that the person I had to clear the study through, an employee who had retired and returned, was not an employee but a contractor.

    Very interesting. When I was a contractor at DISA, they were scrupulous about decision-making being made by Government personnel. Indeed, contractors were often excluded entirely from meetings where decisions were made — often to the chagrin of Government types who had delegated much of the work to their contractors.

  7. clyons11 says:

    I think your final paragraph merits a more prominent place in this excellent piece. Seems to me that a private contractor can become just as entrenched as any civil service employee or department.

    The revolving door-type government employees, particularly SES and certainly Legislative branch, seem to be able to ‘cash in’ on their expertise/contacts quite frequently.

  8. Nicole says:

    As a former DOD contractor, current DOD civil servant, I largely agree with these assessments. Contractors bring a flexibility that the civil service simply doesn’t offer (both in terms of hiring and firing), and there are many, many, support functions that can be accomplished just as well by contractors as by civil servants.

    But, again, the contracts are bid annually. So, managers should have a pretty decent clue what they’ll need during the term. And, because they’re up for renewal in a matter of months — the bidding process starts well before termination — there’s a strong incentive to cooperate.

    While I agree with the overall assessment here, not all contracts are truly competed annually. As a contractor I was never directly involved in the contracting process. However, while contracts are technically a year long, a lot of contracts are more or less automatically renewed on an annual basis. A full-fledged recompete of a major contract is a big deal for a contractor is a big deal and definitely doesn’t happen ever year.

    More surprising was when I learned that the person I had to clear the study through, an employee who had retired and returned, was not an employee but a contractor.

    Very interesting. When I was a contractor at DISA, they were scrupulous about decision-making being made by Government personnel. Indeed, contractors were often excluded entirely from meetings where decisions were made — often to the chagrin of Government types who had delegated much of the work to their contractors.

    I’ve seen this occur too. It does happen that certain offices become “over-contracted” and there are simply too few civil servants to fulfill all the functions that civil servants should be fulfilling. The company that I worked for was pretty scrupulous about telling us “you can’t speak for the government,” and I’ve been in major meetings where I was the sole representative of an entire service and therefore was in an awkward position of not being able to offer a position. And I’ve definitely seen contractors not so scrupulously abide by those restrictions, which is a problem.