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Federal workers overwhelmed by contracts

John Dimsdale Sep 9, 2010

Federal workers overwhelmed by contracts

John Dimsdale Sep 9, 2010


Kai Ryssdal: The White House is studiously not calling its latest economic package a new stimulus plan. Might be just as well: Getting money from earlier federal programs out into the economy has run into a bottleneck. There aren’t enough federal workers to award and manage all those government contracts.

Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports.

John Dimsdale: The problem, says Allison Stanger, the author of “One Nation Under Contract,” is the number of federal employees today is the same as it was in 1963.

Allison Stanger: Yet the federal budget in real terms in that the same period of time has more than tripled. And that enormous gap is filled by contractors.

The government was short of people to oversee contracts from nuclear waste disposal to the space program, even before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which rely heavily on contractors. Now, add another $275 billion in stimulus contracts and monitoring all of them for waste and fraud is almost impossible, says Don Kettl, dean of the school of public policy at the University of Maryland.

Don Kettl: We’ve so vastly increased the amount of spending in such a short time, government employees are really struggling to keep up with the oversight burdens that have come along with the recovery program.

In some cases, government agencies have had to contract out oversight of their own contracts.

Richard Skinner: Matter of fact, we’ve experienced that here in DHS.

Richard Skinner, the inspector general at the Department of Homeland Security, says that’s fraught with potential conflicts of interest.

Skinner: These contractors may not have the government’s best interest in play here. I do not believe it’s healthy to have contractors managing other contractors.

Skinner says the government needs more skilled managers. And in fact, President Obama wants to boost the government’s contract work force by 5 percent. Author Alison Stanger has another suggestion.

Stanger: My solution is what I call “radical transparency.”

She means let the public track all governments contracts right on the Internet.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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