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Amidst the news today are reports that DHS employs more contractors than career civil servants.  Lawmakers, notably Sen. Joseph Lieberman (ID-CT) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME), have described this situation as “unacceptable, untenable and unsustainable.” The other notable word that they have used to describe this situation is “astounding.”

What I find “astounding” is that this situation is actually making news.

This is not news. In fact this is a situation that has been known about for some time. For years, DHS leaders have reported to Congress their employee and contractor employee numbers. In sharing those details, these leaders have made earnest pledges to try to rectify the numbers in favor of having more civil servants. As valiant as their efforts have been, they have been fruitless, and the employment numbers have continued to trend towards a contract workforce over government employees.

Why?

The answer is as simple as it is complex.

You can’t have any conversation about DHS’ employees or contract workforce numbers without mentioning the ultimate crux of the problem – the Department’s Human Resources/Personnel System.

The only person who could possibly proclaim they are proud of the existing HR system is Satan himself because it is sheer hell.

From applying for an open position (and hoping to get some type of response); trying to get your current or previous security clearance processed/accepted; going through myriad interviews that ultimately stop, go nowhere or have to start all over again because of a leadership change somewhere in the organization; seeing the job announcement pulled for some unknown reason – the existing system is nothing short of a disaster.

It takes months, if not more than a year, for DHS to hire someone for many of the positions they need filled. Often times, good candidates who have applied for posted positions just get fed up and pull out of the interview process altogether out of disgust and frustration. As a result, some hiring efforts have to start all over.

From Day 1 of the Department, its executive leadership has tried to remedy this situation with various proposals to provide flexibility and speed to the hiring process while compensating its workforce accordingly. All of those efforts have failed. Because of successful legal challenges by unions (e.g., NTEU’s numerous battles with DHS), the Department’s legacy components having their own hiring systems, constant leadership turnovers and more, DHS possesses what is arguably the worst HR system in the Federal Government. Its future does not look much brighter either.

With guaranteed legal challenges by unions such as NTEU and AFGE to any new proposal that they don’t like, Congressional oversight and meddling (e.g., procedural holds by members of prospective changes), an antiquated pay scale that does not adequately compensate its personnel for their skills and talents, and no leadership on the immediate horizon to aggressively tackle the issue (especially given the hold placed on the nomination of Rafael Boras to be the new Under Secretary for Management), we can expect more of the same.

There is nothing “astounding” about this situation. It’s revolting, and it has been allowed to perpetuate itself year after year.

But why the disparity in civil service and contractor numbers? DHS uses contractors to get its work done because frankly it’s easier and it works. They have jobs they need done. As a result, they issue the specs/RFP for the work to be done, they make a selection of who they want doing the work, and the contractor gets busy doing it. Period.

Additionally, contractors can hire and fire their personnel with greater ease and can better compensate their people than anything DHS can offer in the civil service.

When you compare the hiring mechanisms of DHS with those it has contracted with to support its mission assignments, it’s not even a comparison. It’s like having a race around the world with a row boat (DHS’ HR system) and a rocket (its contractors).

It’s also a complete misstatement to infer that the contract workforce is not as good or as dedicated to the homeland mission as those in the civil service. The contractors DHS employs serve the same mission. Their ID badge color may be different, but their efforts are dedicated to the same cause. That argument seems to have been lost amidst all the headshaking reaction to the Department’s personnel numbers.

If we really want to be “astounded” and have a system that is “acceptable, tenable and sustainable,” we can start by fixing the problem that created the civil service and contractor imbalance.

Until then, we’re stuck with the status quo, and there is nothing “astounding” about it.

Rich Cooper blog primarily on emergency preparedness and response, management issues related to the Department of Homeland Security, and the private sector’s role in homeland security. Read More