[Allison Stanger is Russell J. Leng '60 Professor of International Politics and Economics and Chair of the Political Science Department at Middlebury College. She is the author of One Nation Under Contract: The Outsourcing of American Power and the Future of Foreign Policy.]This is the first day of our book symposium on Laura Dickinson's book Outsourcing War and Peace: Preserving Public Values in a World of Privatized Foreign Affairs. Related posts can be found below.
Laura Dickinson has written a compelling and thoughtful inquiry into the larger implications of the “profound shift in the way the US government projects its power overseas.” Her focus on the enormous threat that contracting poses to public values highlights an important consequence of this transformation that has too often gone unacknowledged. Her discussion of the four potential mechanisms of accountability and control frames that core challenge in a highly fruitful way. While Professor Dickinson is well aware of the potential obstacles to effective functioning of these mechanisms, I wanted to use my post to highlight one that is all too easy to overlook: the impact of excessive contracting on governance and public values themselves.
Decades of privatization mean that the business of government is increasingly in private hands, both in our foreign policy activities abroad and in domestic operations at home. The basic pattern is striking. In 2000, the Department of Defense spent $133.4 billion on contracts. By 2010, that figure had grown to $367.8 billion, an almost three-fold increase. In 2000, the State Department spent $1.3 billion on contracts and $102.5 million on grants. By 2010, contract spending had grown to $8.1 billion and grant spending had grown to $1.4 billion. In 2000, USAID spent $19.3 million on grants and $535.8 million on contracts. By 2010, those figures had climbed to $8.9 billion and $5.6 billion, respectively. These explosive growth patterns are not confined to the national security realm. For example, in 2000, the Department of Health and Human Services expended $4.1 billion on contracts. That figure had risen to $19.1 billion in 2010, a 366 percent increase. Contracts and contractors were also essential to both the Troubled Asset Relief Program [TARP] and the stimulus package. The operative rule of thumb for Republican and Democratic administrations alike has been to turn execution over to the private sector whenever possible.
This shift in and of itself does not disastrous consequences make. But when it is combined with general public distrust of government, Pandora’s box opens. One additional statistic speaks volumes on this transformation. The number of people on the federal government payroll today is roughly the same as it was in 1966, yet the federal budget in that same time period has more than tripled in real terms. Contractors, in part, fill that enormous gap. The result is that our government is today but a shadow of its former self. It is big in terms of the amount of money it spends but small in terms of the number of people it employs to oversee that spending. Government has effectively been hollowed out.
There are obviously consequences for public values in this transformation. As Professor Dickinson summarizes on page 10 of her book, “One of the core points of this book is that these public values ought to govern even when those acting are not governmental employees or representatives.” One might legitimately ask, is this a realistic aspiration when government’s default option is to privatize whenever possible, often outsourcing oversight as well as implementation? It is surely more challenging to uphold public values when government’s actions themselves undermine the public’s faith in the very legitimacy of public sector activity. Moreover, do we really want to treat public servants and private employees as functional equivalents, or do we instead lose something very dear in blurring that line? Who is to ensure that the public interest is upheld under such arrangements?