Sunday, August 31, 2003

The determination that the NASA “culture” contributed to the Columbia disaster may be a commentary on hubris, but not competitive sourcing. And, if opponents of the president’s Management Agenda attempt to link the two, they have missed the point of retired Adm. Harold W. Gehman’s 248-page Columbia Accident Investigation Board report released last week.

Unfortunately, the facts probably won’t stop the newly elected American Federation of Government Employee President John Gage who will undoubtedly feel the blush of battle. Mr. Gage, after all, considers himself a “wartime president.” He believes his union is “at war” with President Bush’s competitive sourcing initiative, since it could involve outsourcing up to 850,000 of the 1.8 million jobs in the federal work force. When Mr. Gage reads that outsourced contractors staffed the controls during the Columbia crash, he will start applying his war paint.

Not so fast, Kimosabe. The unfortunate fact is, Columbia crashed despite the best work of contractors. After all, it was only by outsourcing that NASA could keep the shuttle program running at all. NASA’s $13 billion budget in 2000 represented a 13 percent loss of purchasing power over the past decade, and outsourcers provided necessary economic and technical boosts.

NASA’s contractor, a corporation called United Space Alliance which has maintained and launched the shuttle since 1996, was the first to alert the space agency to the possibility of damage from the foam chunk that doomed the flight. But it was in fact Columbia’s mission chief and NASA employee Linda Ham who made the decision to avoid requesting spy satellite photos to keep the shuttle’s flight on time and on budget.

The NASA contractor, whose 17,000 employees report to 1,700 NASA employees, was unable to override its client’s orders and avoid the catastrophe. It’s important to remember, though, that NASA’s primary mission is manned space travel, the most dangerous of all human endeavors.

On the other hand, none of the last 20 shuttles would have got off the ground without competitive contracting of NASA work. The contract balances the needs for economies and safety. It rewards the company for meeting safety goals and cost-cutting while docking its pay for missing a launch date.

Congressional leaders who oversaw the letting of the United Space contract in 1996 were clear that the contract “spared the agency from enormous administrative overhead involved in managing dozens of contractor companies.”

By all accounts, competition for federal work is good for taxpayers. Since the Internal Revenue Service started using more contractors, taxpayer/customer satisfaction numbers are up. Since the Defense Department started outsourcing more functions, more work has been done faster, more safely and with more technology and fewer troops at risk than ever before. Since the Transportation Safety Administration outsourced personnel functions to its new provider, its staffers have been better trained and more professional and cost-effective than any similar security force in the world.

If AFGE’s new president sticks by his “wartime president” posture on competitive sourcing, his 600,000 civil service union members will surely be outcompeted by the private sector for federal work, just as surely as NASA would have been grounded without its highly evolved contractor.

But what a difference he could make if AFGE President John Gage would exercise his union’s strength and become a well-muscled training and service provider, helping members win contract competitions with private sector providers. His union would win by earning fees for new services, rather than relying on a dwindling pool of dues (remember, Mr. Gage, less than 200,000 of your 600,000 members pay dues). And taxpayers would win by getting better service for the same price or less.

It would be tragic for federal workers if their new union leader continues believing he would rather fight than switch. And it would be a disservice to the memory of Columbia’s crew to fail to build on the advances in competitive sourcing that the NASA experience has given America’s taxpayers.

Jay Whitehead is a leading analyst in work-force issues and founder of the nonprofit Human Resources Outsourcing Association (HROA), publisher of HRO Today Magazine and Producer of the HRO World Conference.

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