While Sandy is forcing us to ponder our reliance on those unionized, overpaid public employees known as first responders, a little discussion about outsourcing is in order.1 Many years ago, the head of a state department’s assessment bureau told me the bureau wrote no tests, though they were responsible for the state’s many tests from K-12 to professional exams. Instead, the state let out contracts for every one of the tests, and this long-time civil servant explained that the real job of the bureau was contract management. There were some statisticians to keep the test publishers honest, some people who were very good at the language side of contracts, and a few overall gophers who could keep the big picture in mind and also explain the ability and limits of state tests to policymakers (i.e., the bureau head and a few others). But essentially the office had fewer than 10 people responsible for tests administered annually to many, many thousands of children and adults.
This was well before No Child Left Behind’s intensified testing mandate, which depending on your view either encouraged the expansion of or strained the capacity of the commercial test publishing industry in the U.S. Now, every state department of education contains a contracting office with a side business in knowing a little bit about assessment. And more: for much of NCLB and now Race to the Top, there is a large coterie of consultants and companies that will take the responsibility of creating tests, curriculum materials, and so forth off the hands of the shrinking number of employees in most state departments of education. To some extent, this is a long-term common practice in government, where the party in power can reduce the nominal number of public employees by effectively “renting” them from a shell company to do the job that they would have done as civil servants; what you lose in direct supervision you gain by not officially having them as employees.2 To some extent, it makes sense for specific tasks to hire specialized firms, or to contract with a public university to perform work for the state that requires a certain expertise and experience.
And then we get the news dug up today by Florida journalist Gary Fineout, about the ending of a contract between the Florida Department of Education and Infinity Software Development. What was this software firm supposed to do? According to Fineout, Infinity was to create a “[w]eb-based system that was intended to provide practice lessons and tests for the standards that will be phased in for math, English, science and civics over the next two years.” Except that the contracting process was a mess. Under former Commissioner Gerard Robinson, the state awarded the contract to Microsoft, then Infinity challenged the award, then former gubernatorial Chief of Staff Steve McNamara tried to capture control of the contract in the governor’s office, then the contract was eventually signed, and it’s apparently been a non-performance disaster on the whole. Apparently the last straw was a draft statement somewhere that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is a clause in the U.S. Constitution. I can assure you that Antonin Scalia never read it there, or the last few decades of Supreme Court decisions would have been a lot different.
Oh, yes, and one more thing: this crazy notion that a software company could be responsible for curriculum and assessment. It is true that Infinity worked on the state’s test-prep website, FCAT Explorer, which I guess is a testimony to the firm’s capacity for doing what the state wanted. But given the broad range of “we’ll take your money to solve your problem” services that the company offers, the company was promising that it had the capacity to do the work, which means having employees who can do curriculum development.3 If I understand Infinity’s
excuse argument correctly, the reason for their nonperformance is that the late signing of a contract meant that they could not perform the work in short order. Maybe that is because they never have permanent employees in their odd outsourcing contracts and hire them for specific jobs, and maybe had problems hiring competent people? This company, whose website promise is “On Time. On Budget. No Excuses,” is both late and full of excuses, because this company out for outsourcing gold apparently did not have the resident expertise to turn on a dime on an urgent policy need by its customer. They signed the contract on the front and bailed on the back.
The difference between outsourcing critical services and hiring employees to do one of your essential jobs is that you do have resident expertise when you hire people directly, when you staff up for what you say is essential. And for a state department of education, you would think that curriculum development and support for teachers comprise a core part of what it is supposed to do, the type of technical assistance that the majority of districts could not invest in before the recession, that even fewer can now. On occasion, it might be helpful to hire somebody in a state capital who knows what is in the Constitution and what is in the Declaration of Independence. For U.S. historians, that’s sort of like knowing your keister from your … well, you understand. Some things can be outsourced. Some things should not be. Florida’s gone too far in the direction of outsourcing important jobs to for-profit companies that have no commitment to the state.
What residents of New Jersey and New York are rediscovering this week is that it’s damned good to have full-time public employees who know what they are doing and understand that they work for their neighbors. I’m glad those states haven’t outsourced first responders… yet.
- Thanks to Sandy, I am stranded in a Philadelphia airport motel the first half of this week. Fortunately, I have had consistent power and internet access, so I can work, if less efficiently. Even had my wonderful undergraduate students meet and be productive this afternoon, with middling-successful efforts to talk with them via Skype in the middle of their team discussions. If you read my blog, students, know that you rock. [↩]
- I know someone who for many years never officially worked for the NASA Ames Research Center in the California Bay Area but did work for a series of vendors, all of which had contracts with NASA to … uh … hire the people who had worked for the predecessor vendor doing the exact same thing. Apparently it was a regular direction to the “rented” NASA employees that they could not actually tell anyone they worked for NASA, though in effect they did. [↩]
- This assertion of capacity is also true for universities and colleges receiving grants or contracts for either research or service, and one of the reviewable components of any proposal is the discussion of whether Podunk U. has the capacity to conduct nuclear weapons research, or whatever is in the project. My colleagues who receive multiple grants and contracts often do so because they have demonstrated both the organizational capacity of the university and their more personal managerial capacity. [↩]