Hello, you’ve reached the Bombay offices of the U.S. Forest Service’s technical support division.
Absurd? Yes. Possible? Yes. At least according to Kalispell U.S. Forest Service employee and union representative Doug Law. Law has watched the trend toward competitive outsourcing for years, and predicts that as more federal jobs are put on the chopping block, more of those jobs will be going out of state, and, on occasion, out of the country.
“Most of these computer jobs can go anywhere from Denver to India,” he says.
The Forest Service has already transferred some of its technical support work to IBM, which farms work oversees to countries including India. No Forest Service computer jobs have yet been lost, but this spring, 1,200 information technology jobs will be considered for outsourcing. Like many, Law thinks that these jobs are likely candidates for absorption into the private sector.
Competitive outsourcing at the U.S. Forest Service has been pushed hard by the Bush administration in hopes that the federal government can replace government workers with more efficient private sector companies, and it’s not just computer tech jobs under the microscope. Everything from trail maintenance to environmental impact statements has or will be examined to see if it can be done faster, cheaper and easier in private sector hands.
This year alone, the government has examined 3,781 Forest Service jobs for outsourcing, says Law. By 2007, that number will have grown to around 10,200.
With so many jobs moving into the private sector, companies are champing at the bit to pick up government contracts. But some recently outsourced Forest Service employees doubt there are adequate local companies in place to do their work.
Holly Schneider is one of 41 members of the Forest Service’s Content Analysis Team (CAT)—the department in charge of analyzing public comment on proposed policy changes—who has been canned. Schneider doesn’t think there are any Missoula companies prepared to take on the whole of what CAT did. Schneider has been hired back to do a portion of her old job on a limited-time basis through a temp agency until the contract work is doled out. She says that CAT’s work can be done cheaper in-house, and a Forest Service study backs her up, but her bosses are still opting to farm the work out.
Schneider thought about forming a private company with her former co-workers to bid on the job, but says she couldn’t do that while still an employee with the government. And now that she’s lost her job, she says it’s too late.
Already, more than 60 companies from California to Washington to Vermont have come forward to offer their services for portions of the CAT project. Only one of these companies, Historical Research Associates, is Missoula-based. David Strohmaier, who is in charge of the company’s bid for CAT contracts, couldn’t be reached for comment by deadline.
National Environment Policy Act (NEPA) specialist Ken Marron, of the New Mexico-based Marron and Associates, is also interested in taking over the Environmental Impact Statement portion of CAT.
“With the way technology is now, most of the paperwork can be done from anywhere,” says Marron. “On occasion, the job requires us to be in a certain place. In those cases, we’ll often just hire local people to do the work for us.”
North Wind, an Idaho-based consulting firm, is another of the five dozen companies applying to take over a portion of CAT’s work. Like Marron, North Wind’s Mike Donahoo says that subcontracting local people for the job is part of taking over out-of-state contracts.
“I like to have a core group that is based in a central location, because that core group establishes a rapport with the community, with the agencies, with the people we do the work with,” says Donahoo. “People like to know the person that they’re working with, and not have someone coming in from New York or California.”
He adds that he’s already familiar with some of the outsourced members of the CAT team, and is hoping that if his company gets the bid, some of them will come to work for him.
None of the interested companies are bidding to take over the entirety of CAT’s tasks. Neither Marron’s small company nor Donahoo’s larger one have the breadth to do it. The result will be job fragmentation—but even the fragments will be too big for many Montana companies, says Law.
“To get bids under this process, it’s pretty hard for someone in Darby or Missoula to do. Let’s just say they’re going to bid out trail maintenance, but the way they divide this stuff out is that they’ll probably want one company to do the whole Bob Marshall [Wilderness].”
A second concern of Law’s, and of many former CAT members, is that profit-driven private companies will pursue the bottom line at the expense of the public good. Additionally, the further a company resides from its work’s impact, the less involved that company is likely to be with the local public.
Donahoo admits that this is an obstacle, but one that can be overcome.
“If we have a personal bias, I work very hard that that bias doesn’t enter into a decision,” he says. “The short answer is that bias does exist, but we, at least in North Wind, try hard to make all our decisions based on good data.”
As the trend toward privatization continues, the public will have to keep a watchful eye not only on government, but on less accountable private contractors as well, says Law. When the local work is farmed out, that may prove difficult. Especially when local watchdogs are charged with making sure the Indian office is doing what it’s supposed to.