A fair amount of my academic research has addressed issues of government privatization–or more accurately, contracting out. (Privatization, as Morton Marcus frequently notes, is what Margaret Thatcher did in England: selling off government enterprises to private sector owners. In the US, privatization means providing government services through for-profit or nonprofit contractors–a very different thing.)
My research has convinced me of three things: 1) while contracting may be appropriate under some circumstances, it is not the panacea that so many politicians seem to think. Sometimes it makes sense, often not. 2) the cost savings that are touted by privatization advocates are largely mythical, the result of omitting the cost to government of contract management–or the even greater costs of failing to manage those contracts. And 3) far from shrinking the size of government, as proponents contend, contracting actually expands both the size and scope of government, while at the same time making that expansion less visible and government less accountable.
Two recent studies confirm those latter conclusions.
A few weeks ago, the Government Accounting Office released the results of its investigation of contracting costs. It found that contracting was often more costly than providing the same services in-house. And just a few days ago, during a debate over a proposed federal contracting rule, the number of of federal contract workers–people working full-time for the federal government who are contract workers rather than federal employees–was estimated at approximately 7.1 million. That’s in contrast to the full-time civilian federal workforce of 2.1 million. The Economic Policy Institute estimates that 43% of all employees who do the government’s work are employed by contractors. (It further estimates that 20% of that 43% are paid “poverty wages.”)
It isn’t only the federal government, of course. When you add the “shadow” employees working under contract for state and local governments, estimates of the number of contracted government employees run as high as 17 million. It’s impossible to know for certain, because there is very little data available that would allow governments to monitor these workers, and considerable resistance from the business community to the Obama administration’s recent efforts to collect and analyze such information.
It’s very difficult to hold government accountable when you can’t see government at work. Contract workers need to come out of the shadows.