NASA is the boss and brand name, but the United States’ shuttle program is largely a private enterprise, as are many other operations of the federal government. Increasingly, Washington is turning to contractors to do tasks both menial and major: testing soil, managing national laboratories, supporting troops, running Indian schools, opening tax returns and much more. The privatization of government is sizable and spread across the bureaucracy.
Even the decision to give airport security back to the federal government after the September 11 attacks has not dimmed the enthusiasm for contracting out services.
“It’s a sort of shadow work force,” said Jacqueline Simon of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Last year, President Bush proposed making it easier to turn as many as 850,000 more federal jobs over to the private sector, part of a trend to have others share the government’s workload while trimming the federal payroll and ostensibly getting better quality work at a lower cost. The government employs more than 1.7 million civilians directly.
But the disaster in which the Columbia disintegrated minutes from arrival in Florida, killing all seven astronauts on board, is raising questions.
“I would wager that most Americans did not know, and probably still don’t know, that Boeing is more responsible for the launch of the space shuttle than NASA,” said Paul Light, a Brookings Institution expert on the bureaucracy.
In 1996, NASA awarded a six-year contract worth $9 billion to United Space Alliance, a Houston-based partnership between Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., to manage day-to-day operations of the shuttle fleet. The contract was extended last year for two years.
Those contractors use more than 120 subcontractors at the Johnson and Kennedy space centers, performing tasks such as strapping astronauts into their seats, laying cement tiles on the shuttle and positioning the solid rocket boosters for liftoff.
All government agencies use outside firms to get some of their work done, and entire industries exist to compete for Defense, Energy and Transportation department contracts.
More than 54,000 companies held contracts worth more than $25,000 in 2001, according to the government.
The Energy Department has 100,000 contractors, six times the number of its direct employees. The Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Sandia national laboratories are run by contractors.
The Defense Department uses contractors for such varied jobs as peeling potatoes, and designing and building weapons. Army Secretary Thomas E. White recently directed his commanders to submit plans to privatize any job not essential to fighting wars.
Some contractors pay the ultimate price. Two Americans shot last month in Kuwait, one fatally, were civilian Defense Department contractors from a San Diego-based software company.
But in at least one area, the government reversed course on outsourcing.
Private security firms did such a poor job at airports before and after the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington that the Bush administration assumed the responsibility, created an agency to oversee it and brought more than 45,000 security screeners onto the federal payroll.
Mr. Light, the Brookings scholar, said Congress and the executive branch figured out long ago that government would look a lot smaller if jobs were awarded to private enterprises, whose employees don’t show up in the roster of federal civil service workers. Indeed, the government does not even keep track of how many contractors work for it.
The Clinton administration’s “reinventing government” effort eliminated 377,000 civilian jobs, trimming the federal work force 17 percent in eight years. That helped President Clinton assert in 1996 that “the era of big government is over.”
The days of a large, growing civil service work force may indeed be over, judging only by a head count, Mr. Light said. What isn’t getting smaller is the number of people needed to do the government’s business, which is where contractors, the shadow workers, come in.
The federal hiring process is cumbersome, the pay often is not on par with private industry and “there are certain places where you just can’t get the expertise anymore but from a contractor,” Mr. Light said.
He estimated the federal work force to be 17 million, including postal workers, the armed services, civil service workers, contractors, federal grant recipients, and state and local government employees who implement various federal mandates.
“A lot of what government does is labor intensive,” Mr. Light said. “You can’t do it with just 1.8 million employees.”