Posted: Monday, September 8, 2003
The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) and its NASA Council of Unions expressed support for a majority of the conclusions in the recently released Columbia Accident Investigation Board's (CAIB) report. We are pleased, as all citizens are, to see that the Board looked at both the physical as well as the organizational factors surrounding this tragedy. We believe, however, that the Board's recommendations would have been more inclusive had they sought the input of IFPTE's NASA Council when gathering causal information for their report.
The effects of downsizing and outsourcing of work in the federal government has plagued the federal workforce for several years. Within NASA, this issue is even more evident because of the high risks associated with its mission. Shortly after the Columbia tragedy, IFPTE released a report titled "The Effectiveness of NASA's Workforce & Contractor Policies." The report explained that "a combination of budget cuts, workforce downsizing, and outsourcing of key operations negatively affected the safety of NASA's manned space flight program, its ability to retain and pass along core technical knowledge, and its oversight of the contractor workforce." As the primary union representing over 5000 engineers, scientists, and technical personnel at four of NASA's facilities and headquarters, IFPTE felt it necessary to restate its views contained in our earlier report. While the Board's report is more detailed than ours and takes a hard look at management's role in the tragedy, it also indirectly supports IFPTE's conclusions on the effects of outsourcing in the federal government.
Over the last two decades, the federal government has been downsizing its workforce; in 2003, the Bush Administration stated its intention to contract out half of the work currently performed by federal workers. These cost cutting measures have forced management to cut the civil servant workforce to bare bones, while building a shadow workforce with little accountability or oversight—the contract workforce—to meet their cost cutting quotas. As stated in the Board's report, "Redundant systems essential to this high-risk enterprise have fallen victim to bureaucratic efficiency. Years of workforce reductions and outsourcing have culled from NASA's workforce the layers of experience and hands-on systems knowledge that once provided a capacity for safety oversight." As a nation, we must seek to slow this downward spiral at NASA and throughout the federal government by limiting all avenues of outsourcing, and putting a system of checks and balances in place holding contractors accountable for their work.
Oversight is critical. Federal workers, management, and the public-at-large must know that the program will work the first time and every time. The NASA Council and IFPTE are fearful that a mindset of disrespect has developed towards federal employees, from both the contractors as well as the younger workers seeking meaningful employment at the agency. Critical in-house work once performed by federal workers has been taken over by contractors and young employees (the best and brightest) are left without sufficient mentors to educate them on contract oversight or the challenge of hands-on work awarded to contractors. Outsourcing is so pervasive within NASA that mission assurance has become a true problem.
NASA's commitment to privatization has extended to the most safety critical operations in the agency. Just before the Columbia accident, NASA commissioned a study on privatizing the entire shuttle operation, completely eliminating any work performed by federal employees on shuttle maintenance and operation. Yet there are no comprehensive long-term studies on federal contracting, and there remains little evidence to support privatization arguments that the private sector outperforms the federal government at a lower cost. Hopefully, NASA's example will offer some insight to the problems that arise when federal agencies rely heavily on contractors.
Said Wesley Darbro, president of the NASA Council, "The need for technical personnel, from the bottom to the top, has never been greater at NASA. We must have leaders who can understand the technical arguments, NASA scientists and engineers, and they must have control over safety and mission issues. It takes rocket scientists. NASA's current culture is failing because of a long term devaluing of scientific and technical expertise within the agency. Management is too detached from the agency's daily work and its challenges while continually opting to outsource critical work, bowing to the pressures of Congress and the White House. We realize NASA clearly needs the service of contractors and we value them highly but it is a case of balance. In this engineering and scientific agency more technical work must be left in the hands of the federal worker. Trusting programs similar to the Human Space Flight Program to government contractors will not move our space business forward, and we look forward to changes.
"We firmly agree with a statement made by Board member, Dr. John Logsdon" said Darbro. He said that ‘believing that the shuttle was a mature system, NASA turned a lot of its operations over to a single contractor. But more importantly, turned a lot of NASA responsibilities in safety and mission assurance over to that contractor and backed off; did insight instead of oversight of the program. And we believe that was a mistake."
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