November 17, 2002
Better Late Than Never

Random Jottings and others have linked to a story about Bush administration plans to open up to 850,000 federal jobs to private bids.

In some agencies, this is only half-new. I once worked for a small computer company in Washington, D.C. that had a contract with one of the larger federal agencies. On the computer side, the department had two full staffs, the government employees who were supposed to be doing the work and the private-sector employees (us) who actually did the work. One of the government 'programmers' did literally zero work in the two years I worked with alongside him. His computer skills were not the kind needed in the department, and there was no way to force him to learn how to program the not-very-exotic system we used (Unix, C, and Informix). In the short term, the only punishment for his utter sloth was that he lost his window cubicle. (Government employees normally had first dibs on the windows.) He used to stop by my cubicle once a day to look out the window for five minutes or so. Since the web hadn't got off the ground yet (this was the mid-1980s), he spent the rest of his day sitting in his windowless cubicle reading newspapers. In the long term, he was shuffled off to a supposedly better but actually worse job across town, but it took two years for his boss to arrange the transfer, that is, to fool someone into taking him. His colleagues did some work, but nothing particularly useful: we used them mostly to test the system we were building, though they were paid as programmers rather than operators.

One thing about government employees is that if you know their pay-grade and years of service, you know exactly how much money they make. My boss had a wallet card that gave the numbers, and made the mistake of sharing them with us one day. It did not help our morale. It turned out that all of the government employees in the department, not just the supposed programmers, made more money than we did, with a single exception: their lowest-paid employee, whose only duty was to sit in the computer room all day making sure no one stole the equipment, made slightly less than our highest-paid employee, the programmer/analyst responsible for designing the whole software system (something over 100,000 lines of code total) and coding some of the more intricate parts. Other than that, there was no overlap.

I wonder how many other government agencies there are in which the private contractors are already doing the work.

Posted by Dr. Weevil at November 17, 2002 03:54 PM

Let me wade ashore here. Have you heard of NMCI (Navy Marine Corps Internet)? EDS is the prime contractor, and gets the largest chunk of $7 billion over the next seven years to get all of the Navy and Marine installations on the same tcp/ip page, and keep them there. Why can't the Naval services manage this on their own? IMHO, because during the Clinton years, anyone with any stones was sent packing. There are no Hyman Rickovers to take charge and make a decision. (HR built the first nuke sub, and was the godfather of the nuke Navy for over 30 years. He personally interviewed every naval officer entering the nuke power program during this time, and was a force to be reckoned with on Capitol Hill.)

Posted by: Casca0302 on November 18, 2002 03:30 PM

That sounds SO familiar. In the early 90's I worked for a contractor at a government facility. (I'd rather not give too many details) There was this one guy who was a "GS Oh my God!" as we used to call them who did nothing but "review" new software. He sat in his office all day reading tech magazines and was always ordering, at taxpayer's expense of course, all kinds of software that had absolutely nothing to do with what we or anyone else there were doing.

And then there was the woman who was supposed to be in charge of security. She was well known for sitting around all day reading romance novels and writing personal letters. Then someone higher up started actually expecting her to do some work - not much you understand, just a little routine paperwork. Well, you never heard such whining and wailing in your life. The result? She got not one but TWO assistants to do her job for her. Meanwhile we contactors were swamped with more work than we could possibly complete in the allotted time, but the government could not afford to allow the contractor to hire additional employees.

Posted by: Lynn on November 18, 2002 09:29 PM