Monday, December 11

Outsourcer in Chief

According to U.S. News & World Report, President Bush has told aides that he won’t respond in detail to the Iraq Study Group’s report because he doesn’t want to “outsource” the role of commander in chief.

That’s pretty ironic. You see, outsourcing of the government’s responsibilities — not to panels of supposed wise men, but to private companies with the right connections — has been one of the hallmarks of his administration. And privatization through outsourcing is one reason the administration has failed on so many fronts.

For example, an article in Saturday’s New York Times describes how the Coast Guard has run a $17 billion modernization program: “Instead of managing the project itself, the Coast Guard hired Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, two of the nation’s largest military contractors, to plan, supervise and deliver the new vessels and helicopters.”

The result? Expensive ships that aren’t seaworthy. The Coast Guard ignored “repeated warnings from its own engineers that the boats and ships were poorly designed and perhaps unsafe,” while “the contractors failed to fulfill their obligation to make sure the government got the best price, frequently steering work to their subsidiaries or business partners instead of competitors.”

In Afghanistan, the job of training a new police force was outsourced to DynCorp International, a private contractor, under very loose supervision: when conducting a recent review, auditors couldn’t even find a copy of DynCorp’s contract to see what it called for. And $1.1 billion later, Afghanistan still doesn’t have an effective police training program.

In July 2004, Government Executive magazine published an article titled “Outsourcing Iraq,” documenting how the U.S. occupation authorities had transferred responsibility for reconstruction to private contractors, with hardly any oversight. “The only plan,” it said, “appears to have been to let the private sector manage nation-building, mostly on their own.” We all know how that turned out.

On the home front, the Bush administration outsourced many responsibilities of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. For example, the job of evacuating people from disaster areas was given to a trucking logistics firm, Landstar Express America. When Hurricane Katrina struck, Landstar didn’t even know where to get buses. According to Carey Limousine, which was eventually hired, Landstar “found us on the Web site.”

It’s now clear that there’s a fundamental error in the antigovernment ideology embraced by today’s conservative movement. Conservatives look at the virtues of market competition and leap to the conclusion that private ownership, in itself, is some kind of magic elixir. But there’s no reason to assume that a private company hired to perform a public service will do better than people employed directly by the government.

In fact, the private company will almost surely do a worse job if its political connections insulate it from accountability — which has, of course, consistently been the case under Mr. Bush. The inspectors’ report on Afghanistan’s police conspicuously avoided assessing DynCorp’s performance; even as government auditors found fault with Landstar, the company received a plaque from the Department of Transportation honoring its hurricane relief efforts.

Underlying this lack of accountability are the real motives for turning government functions over to private companies, which have little to do with efficiency. To say the obvious: when you see a story about failed outsourcing, you can be sure that the company in question is a major contributor to the Republican Party, is run by people with strong G.O.P. connections, or both.

So what happens now? The failure of privatization under the Bush administration offers a target-rich environment to newly empowered Congressional Democrats — and I say, let the subpoenas fly. Bear in mind that we’re not talking just about wasted money: contracting failures in Iraq helped us lose one war, similar failures in Afghanistan may help us lose another, and FEMA’s failures helped us lose a great American city.

And maybe, just maybe, the abject failure of this administration’s efforts to outsource essential functions to the private sector will diminish the antigovernment prejudice created by decades of right-wing propaganda.

That’s important, because the presumption that the private sector can do no wrong and the government can do nothing right prevents us from coming to grips with some of America’s biggest problems — in particular, our wildly dysfunctional health care system. More on that in future columns.