Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A-76 and ADA

Rick Heller poses the question at Centerfield of whether or not the A-76 Outsourcing Initiative in government has harmed disabled workers. The answer is yes, as I can personally attest to. A-76, for those who don't know, was born long ago, pre-Bush and pre-Clinton with the FAIR Act (Federal Agency Inventory Reporting). FAIR required agencies to categorize and inventory all agency jobs into "commercial" and "inherently governmental", and to place as many of those jobs available for competition as possible. Bush often is credited with inventing it, but it was during the Clinton years that real, genuine A-76 efforts began, and were elevated to a more public face with Bush's President's Management Agenda. A-76 made a lot of sense in cases. Did every agency need a wood shop staffed by government employees? Did every agency need government-employeed window washers? The list goes on.

The point Heller makes, though, is one that is becoming startling. As the most conservative estimates put the ratio of contractors to federal employees at 2 to 1 (based on numbers pre-2000, but contracting and A-76 have become much more rampant since then, hiring a million more contractors) almost every function possible is being contracted out. The jobs most dubbed "commercial" are blue-collar jobs. Janitorial services, mail room, building services, administrative and clerical jobs, and others most get it. Other "white collar" jobs like accountants, IT, and legal spots are also being contracted out and dubbed "commercial" (like writing Agency Final Determinations in discrimination cases, right?), but for the most part it's the blue collar ones. The hidden casualty of this is that the government typically hires lots of disabled people, either mentally-challenged or otherwise, to work in these blue-collar jobs. Then, when the A-76 comes around, they are essentially disposed of, and without all the legal complications of firing them. The award goes to the most efficient firm, and rarely does that mean that they hire people with disabilities.

So does the A-76 violate the ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act)? Of course not, although it creates an easy way to get rid of the less-efficient disabled people the government makes it a policy to hire, since there's no such mandatory policy in place in the private sector. We can go round and round in circles about this, but to me it's better use of taxpayer dollars to pay a little bit extra to get them a job than it would be paying them benefits to sit home, watch tv, and become morbidly obese. Of course, some would probably like to cut them off entirely, but no one with real sense. I have seen and heard of mail rooms being contracted out constantly, which are usually full of disabled people, since those jobs are the easiest to part with using A-76. And, since A-76 and the Management Agenda only give you points for how many job competitions you conduct (not on quality and money saved, just quantity), those are going to be the victims. What's the answer? If A-76 provided some protection for disabled workers, that would be a start, but the problem is deeper. The OMB Scorecard for agencies on competitive sourcing should be more about looking at quality of what is outsourced instead of quantity. While many want to claim victory just be getting less employees on government payrolls, it may be a Pyrrhic victory indeed if it means more disabled people on the dole, poorer services, and a death of institutional capacity, learning, and synergy, which often contracted out projects lead to. Merely swapping out government employees for a batch of contractors often doesn't do anything but cause disruption and save no more than pennies on the dollar. A-76 should be more about overall organizational transformation, not just musical chairs.