GAO says overreliance on contractors to handle certain functions is unwise because it could allow contractors to inappropriately influence government decisions.
The Department of Homeland Security came under fire at a Senate hearing for being too reliant on outside contractors.
The practice of hiring contractors, especially for positions that support "inherently governmental functions," such as determining agency policy or directing and controlling intelligence operations, has the potential to harm the government's ability to make independent decisions, said John P. Hutton, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office. He noted that reliance on contractors arose from the need to gear up quickly after DHS was formed, but he said that it was not a good policy to continue.
"The closer contractor services come to supporting inherently governmental functions," said Hutton, " the greater the risk of their influencing the government’s control over and accountability for decisions that may be based, in part, on contractor work."
Hutton referenced a previous case where government agencies became too reliant on contractors to perform their mission. In 1981, the GAO reported that contractors at the Departments of Energy and Defense were involved in management functions to the point that it limited the agencies' abilities to act independently of their contractors.
In a statement reported by The Washington Post , Sen. Joseph Leiberman (I-CT), chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs, voiced his concern on undue contractor influence at DHS.
"Plainly put, we need to know who is in charge at DHS -- its managers and workers, or the contractors. This heavy reliance on contractors raises the risk that DHS is not creating the institutional knowledge needed to be able to judge whether contractors are performing as they should, and at a fair price."
According to Leiberman, DHS spent $15.7 billion on goods and services in 2006. Almost a third went to contractors for professional and management support.
Elaine C. Duke, chief procurement officer at DHS, told the committee that she agreed that the right balance between government and contractor employees must be struck, but that "the Department does not envision as we move forward a sea-change where entire programs or functions that involve commercial activities will be manned solely by Federal employees."
Quoting DHS's Inspector General, she defended partnering with the private sector as a way of bringing "fresh perspective, insight, creative energy and innovation" to the department.
To read witness testimony from yesterday's hearing, click here .