On Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported on a $300M deal between the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Accenture. The deal seemingly calls for the latter to spearhead the promoting, recruiting, selecting, and processing of approximately 7,500 hires for the vast federal agency charged with, among other things, the administration of our federal immigration laws and regulations.
As is always the case with initial reports, there is a lot going on here and, with time, one hopes more information will bubble to the surface. Until then, here are some preliminary reactions.
As noted in the article, this is a substantial contract. A Cato Institute analyst who has studied the contract estimates that the cost per new hire is quite high—the near equivalent of one year’s starting salary of an entry-level federal employee.
DHS says that estimate is too high but by no means pitches the contract as motivated by a desire to leverage the efficiency of the market (the customary justification for privatizing government responsibilities).
So, why go down this route?
First, Accenture will reportedly engage in “hard-hitting, targeted recruitment.” Perhaps this means that DHS prefers (or needs) a private intermediary to do the type of aggressive and selective outreach to certain demographic groups or to those with certain political affinities that the agency (or the U.S. Office of Personnel Management) wouldn’t be comfortable targeting.
Second, Accenture reportedly has a role in hiring. That’s big. Potentially really big. A privately vetted hiring regime may enable the DHS to workaround the strict nonpartisan review protocols that have long regulated federal hiring. (Perhaps this workaround is further facilitated by the fact that DHS already has capacious carve outs from civil service laws.)
Authorizing private recruiting channels and hiring practices matters a whole lot under any circumstance. Open government recruiting has helped ensure not only equal and full access to jobs—particularly important during times when private employers were less than welcoming of women and people of color—but also considerable demographic and some ideological diversity within the ranks of government.
And it especially matters in the here and now when federal immigration officials are being directed to, among other things, troll for undocumented persons at churches, schools, and even hospital ERs. Not everyone has the stomach for such work—and that has to be among the unstated reasons why recruiting and retention today is so difficult.
Third, Accenture reportedly will conduct a PR campaign to promote customs and Border Patrol jobs. This seems innocent enough. Certainly the military does heaps of this work, often in conjunction with Madison Avenue. And I’ve elsewhere called for greater efforts on the part of agencies to tout the work they do and to explain why regulation is valuable. But it is hard to think about Accenture PR in isolation from the latest news from the EPA—specifically, Saturday’s New York Times report of EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s “war room” of contractors charged with conducting opposition research on would-be critics within the bureaucracy.
Given this Administration’s complicated relationship with truth, its quickness to discredit and delegitimize challengers and rivals, and its openly expressed hostility to the federal bureaucracy, one needs to be a least wary about any privately run PR campaign, particularly one designed to respond to, per the Times story, “changing generational values … and a growing distrust of law enforcement.”
Of course, federal recruiting and retention must be difficult across every agency right now. Over the past year, we’ve been bombarded with reports of career officials being sidelined, silenced, or reassigned for what seem to be politically motivated reasons. Current and would-be government employees hear the president and his political surrogates call bureaucrats swamp monsters and subversive members of a Deep State; they hear the president and some agency heads (Rex Tillerson) call them expendable; and they hear the president and some agency heads (Ryan Zinke) call them disloyal.
There are today any number of pressing, alarming threats to constitutional government, to the rule of law, and to the health and reputation of the American Republic. One’s attention is therefore pulled in countless directions. In conducting triage, don’t lose sight of the manifold attacks on the bureaucracy. As I and countless others have noted—the federal bureaucracy is on the ropes right now. But, all things considered, they’re still doing an admirable job, often in service of quelling or mitigating those constitutional threats and in ensuring the fair and just administration of federal laws and regulations. Still, they need support—support from the general public, of Congress, and—where possible—the judiciary. Such support includes, at the very least, close and careful monitoring of this DHS-Accenture partnership.