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The Fruits of Privatization and Standardization

September 28, 2013

An article in today’s NYTimes describes the slipshod corner-cutting that resulted when the US Government decided to privatize background checks in the 1990s, the era when the notion of privatization took root. The toxic combination of standardization and underfunding led to “ghostwritten” background checks by employees of the USIS, the private firm that assumed responsibility for the background checks of civil servants and military personnel. Here’s a brief and sad history of the USIS:

Once an arm of the federal government, USIS was spun off into the private sector in the 1990s as U.S. Investigations Services. Former employees said it became aggressively focused on meeting revenue goals after it was bought in 2007 by Providence Equity Partners for $1.5 billion.

“It all became extremely numbers-intensive,” said a former executive with top-level management responsibility. “There would be a crisis situation when you were off by 2 percent” from a revenue quota.

A spokesman for Providence declined to comment.

Between 2005 and 2011, Congress held 14 hearings to bring attention to the problem of the security clearance backlog. A White House official in the Bush administration, Clay Johnson, was named chairman of a task force to tame the backlog. “We paid a lot of attention to it,” he said. “There was no excuse.”

Part of the solution was as simple as switching to online questionnaires. Another was enabling the personnel office to rapidly hire more field investigators, which it did by outsourcing 75 percent of the work to the private sector.

The time to close a file shrank from an average of 145 days in 2005 to 36 this year, according to the Federal Investigative Service, a bureaucratic triumph celebrated by Republicans and Democrats.

Hm-m-m-m… the time taken to close a file– the metric used to determine compensation– was shortened and everyone was happy…. but the QUALITY of the reviews and the files was diminished. Of course both political parties were happy: they didn’t have to raise the money needed to staff an office that did the kind of time consuming comprehensive background checks that typified those done previously by government agencies…. and now that it has come to light that the shooter in the US Naval yard murders had a slipshod background check they can shift the blame to the private agency who, while underfunded by the government managed to make a tidy profit for shareholders.

I’ve linked to this article because this sounds like the privatization movement in public schools. The privatization and quantification of complicated tasks is the result of the magical thinking that everything can be standardized. When background checks for secrecy clearings are counted like widgets it is no surprise that employees become heedless. When the quantification of schooling is reduced to a single test given at the end of the year, is it any surprise that teachers and administrators cut corners to get test scores higher?

Government leaders should be explaining to the public that some complicated endeavors require time and the only way to reduce the time needed is to add personnel which, alas for politicians, requires the raising of revenue. In background checks this means more people to complete thorough and comprehensive background checks. In schools it means more teachers to work with students individually to ensure their unique needs are being met.

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