Lawmakers question the number of DHS contractors (but what is the number?)

Published 16 December 2009

Do you know how many contractors DHS relies on to carry out the department’s mission? Nobody knows; the best we have is a DHS estimate: about 10,520 in the Washington, D.C. area alone; six years ago DHS tried to do a head count of contractors, but the industry resisted and the project was dropped; DHS says its estimate is based “on algorithms, taking the cost of the contract and taking valid formulas” for estimating personnel required to execute the contracts; “[these figures are] as accurate as we can get under the current conditions”.

How many contractors does it take to perform the DHS’s mission? About 10,520 in the Washington, D.C. area alone, if we believe the department’s own estimate. GovExec’s Katherine McIntire Peters writes that Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Missouri), a former state auditor, is not sure she does. During a hearing Tuesday of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs oversight panel, McCaskill grilled Elaine Duke, DHS under secretary for management, about the estimate the department provided her office. “Those figures are based on algorithms, taking the cost of the contract and taking valid formulas” for estimating personnel required to execute the contracts, Duke said. “They’re as accurate as we can get under the current conditions.”

When asked why the department could not simply perform a head count, Duke said, “There was an attempt about six years ago to start counting contractors. It was put in the Federal Register as a public notice, but [reaction] from industry was so strong the notice was withdrawn.” Industry officials protested the attempt to count contractors on the grounds that their companies were being paid to provide services and information about how many people they devoted to fulfilling those services was privileged, Duke said. “The attitude was, ‘You’re not buying people, you’re buying a service,’” she said. McCaskill did not accept that argument. “I think this is something we need to know,” she said.

The Obama administration is reexamining the issue, Duke said. “We’re looking at that again across the federal government in terms of how should we be counting contractors, how they should be held accountable and what the level of these professional services are [as well as] the definition of inherently governmental work,” she said.

Many of the contractors sit in government-owned space, use government-owned computers, and otherwise function as federal employees, Duke acknowledged. Already the department has identified about 3,500 positions now held by contractors that should be considered core government functions, Duke said.

McCaskill said she would continue to press for more accountability regarding the department’s contract workforce. “People may have misinterpreted my interest in this area as being against contractors and privatization,” she said. “I’m not. What I’m against is doing it in a way in which we never know whether we get bang for our buck.”