Parks officials say privatization idea is demoralizing, wrong

August 03, 2003|by ANDREW SCHOTZ

As the federal government examines its own efficiency, critics of a competition initiative are rallying around the National Park Service.

A study of several top government departments is part of the Federal Activities Inventory Reform Act of 1998, which President Clinton signed.

The act directs federal agencies to document their employees' functions in annual reports to Congress and the public.

The head of each agency may consider hiring private contractors to perform some functions. However, the agency must get a chance to defend its operations and "compete" with a private bid.

Privatization in the National Park Service is not new, agency spokeswoman Elaine Sevy said. In fact, there are more nongovernment employees working for the Park Service (about 28,000) than government employees (about 20,000), she said.


Many nongovernment employees are in hospitality-type industries, such as hotels, gift shops and food service, Sevy said.

The study is looking at whether other positions could be filled by private contractors, too.

A fact sheet compiled by the National Parks Conservation Association, a Washington watchdog organization, says the federal Office of Management and Budget and the Department of the Interior "are moving to hand over to low-bidding private contractors up to 70 percent of all jobs in the already understaffed, financially strapped National Park Service, including archaeologists, biologists, museum curators, and maintenance workers.

"Privatization would adversely impact our national parks and the experiences of millions of park visitors, and would further limit the ethnic diversity of the Park Service workforce," the fact sheet states.

Already, the National Park Service has turned about half of the 1,700 jobs it is studying into privately contracted jobs, Sevy said. Many were vacant.

Those jobs included custodians, building and grounds workers, fee collectors and archaeologists at a handful of sites across the country, including Washington, D.C.

So far, no jobs at the national parks in the Tri-State area have been privatized or are up for review.

The review of efficiency and commercial possibilities in government work covers all of the Cabinet-level departments, yet the spotlight has been on the Department of Interior, especially the National Park Service, Interior spokesman John Wright said.

The Park Service is "a warm and fuzzy organization," he said. "People love 'em. Sometimes, they love 'em to death."

Park Service employees tend to be loyal people who love their work, Wright said.

Lawmakers speak out

On July 17, by about a 2-to-1 margin, the House of Representatives voted to halt funding for any efficiency studies of the U.S. Forest Service and most Department of Interior agencies after this fiscal year. The restriction was part of the Department of Interior's fiscal 2004 appropriations bill.

The Senate may do the same when it considers the appropriations bill in September.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., is co-sponsoring the Park Professionals Protection Act, which would "prohibit the study or implementation of any plan to privatize, divest, or transfer any part of the mission, function, or responsibility of the National Park Service."

"In my view, the men and women of the National Park Service perform an invaluable service and do an outstanding job, often under difficult circumstances, in managing our park treasures," Sarbanes said in a statement released by his office. "This outsourcing proposal undermines morale of this dedicated work force and threatens the National Park Service's capacity to manage and protect park resources."

Amid the debate about efficiency, the debaters even disagree on the terminology.

The study is about "competitive sourcing," not privatization, Wright said. Government agencies are competing with private companies for work, but the agencies can win, he said.

Wright said he was perturbed that a newspaper article talked about Park Service employees being fired, which isn't true.

"If an agency competes with the private sector and loses, the private sector must include the basis for handling employees that may be displaced," he said.

"Nobody has lost a job or anything," Sevy, the Park Service spokeswoman, said.

"Competitive sourcing is one of the five initiatives" in the Bush administration's President's Management Agenda, according to the Office of Management and Budget, "a plan to reform the federal government by making it citizen-centered, results-oriented, and market-based. ...

"Competitions are held in which the costs and overall value of services are compared among private sector and federal government providers," according to the OMB. "It does not matter who wins - the desired outcome is the delivery of better services at the best value for the American taxpayer."

The Herald-Mail Articles