Two of the biggest news events of the past year have been the leaks about top-secret snooping by the NSA and the disastrous rollout of Obamacare. But in an important way, they are both manifestations of a story that has been unfolding for decades — that of a federal government that has outsourced too much of what it does to private contractors while allowing the quality of its own workforce to atrophy.
Lots of Americans were disturbed to learn from Edward Snowden that the government is keeping track of their every phone call and text message. But they might have also wondered why a 30-year-old government contractor in Honolulu, with security clearance that was approved by another private contractor, had routine access to some of the government’s most sensitive secrets. Even worse, two years after Pfc. Bradley Manning did the same thing, Snowden managed to download millions of pages of documents from a computer system designed and managed by private contractors without setting off a single alarm. The whole affair was an embarrassment to Washington’s government contracting sector.
So, too, the fiasco with HealthCare.gov, which despite the bleating of Republicans has almost nothing to do with the wisdom of the new health-care law and everything to do with the way the government and its outside contractors set about implementing it. While several of the contractors failed to perform as promised, in hindsight it appears the government also made a crucial mistake in deciding to rely on the IT staff at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to manage the contractors and oversee the final integration of the new system. Free-market ideologues will reflexively see in this failure further evidence of the inherent inferiority of public-sector workers. In truth, it is evidence of how outdated civil service rules and ill-conceived caps on the size and pay of the federal workforce have eroded the government’s ability to perform even essential government tasks.