President Bush wants to privatize 425,000 federal jobs, one-quarter of the nation's positions that are product or service-oriented in nature. Workers who exercise discretion, set policies and budgets, or perform other duties that are "inherently governmental" are immune from the process, for the time being.
Does this sound good for private
enterprise? Sure, for some aggressive entrepreneurs. Will it save
taxpayers money? I doubt it. Could it undermine morale in
government, undercut unions and add to the roll call of American
workers without medical insurance? You bet it will.
Will it make our country more susceptible to
terrorist attacks by allowing masses of contract and temporary
workers access to government offices, computers and files? Quite
But for land-management agencies,
especially the U.S. Forest Service, an even darker apparition looms
on the horizon.
"The administration doesn't want
anyone overseeing the timber industry or environmental policies,"
Bill Kilroy, a vice president with Local 60 of the National
Federation of Federal Employees, explained to me. "They view
current Forest Service employees as a hindrance to what they want
This winter, the Forest Service is
studying 3,035 jobs -- roughly 7 percent of its 40,000-strong
workforce -- that could be taken over by private contractors. The
agency has classified 20,229 jobs as "commercial inventory" and
eligible for what agency officials refer to as "competitive
The jobs now up for study include
approximately 1,700 positions in building, ground, road and fleet
maintenance; 500 jobs in information technology infrastructure,
including IBM system operation, telecommunications and related
software; 150 computer support positions; the entire 65-member
Content Analysis Team; plus 620 temporary positions.
That's only the start. An internal agency memo
designed to educate managers about the process noted that
"competitive sourcing is a process that will be used to study
virtually all activities, over time, in the Forest Service."
Other land management agencies are also
conducting the same competitive sourcing drill. The Bureau of Land
Management, which employs about 10,000 workers, is studying about
1,250 positions, with another 1,250 positions to be studied later.
The National Park Service is studying 10 percent of its 20,000
positions, including employees at the Denver Service Center --
which develops the service's environmental impact statements.
Another affected agency that has an impact on
public and private lands is the Army Corps of Engineers. That
outfit oversees hundreds of flood-control and river navigation
projects across the country. Privatization programs could affect up
to 32,500 military and civilian employees of the Corps of
Some officials at the Forest Service
say the future of the agency could be at stake. Liz Gupton, an
engineering technician and president of Local 60 of the National
Federation of Federal Employees, calls past privatization of public
service jobs "disasters" -- particularly where the jobs provided
oversight of health and environmental laws and resource extraction.
"You could see good logging practices going down
the road pretty fast," she said.
biologist Rose Leach knows firsthand how a government entity can
manipulate the rules by contracting out work. In 2001, while a
staff member of the Montana Dept. of Natural Resources and
Conservation, she refused to sign off on an environmental
assessment to log dead timber on a burned hillside. She thought the
foresters were too stingy when it came to leaving snags -- dead
standing trees -- essential to black-backed woodpeckers and other
"They took me off that assignment and
hired a contract biologist for $50 an hour who rubber-stamped their
plans," said Leach. She eventually left her job with the state to
work for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes on the
Flathead Reservation. "I know many ethical contractors, but you can
shop around for one to tell you what you want to hear," she said.
Is President Bush's plan to save money an
ingenious scheme to circumvent environmental safeguards and turn
the nation's public lands into industrial zones? It may not be the
major thrust of the privatization movement, but it would be
surprising if someone in the administration hadn't pointed out the
extra benefits to the president.