WASHINGTON: The US Forest Service (USFS) is under fire from watchdog groups for its recently announced intention to explore outsourcing 100 jobs in its communications department.
The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) has objected to the plan, saying it will decrease accountability of those speaking on behalf of a public agency. The group is drumming up press scrutiny of the proposal in hopes of drawing public attention to the plan, currently in the "Feasibility Study" phase.
Jeff Ruch, PEER's executive director, said the USFS' possible outsourcing is "disquieting" given what he called the Bush administration's "penchant for complete information control" and the Armstrong Williams imbroglio, in which the Department of Education used Ketchum to funnel payments to the commentator.
Tom Fitzpatrick, the program manager of the Forest Service's competitive sourcing office, said that the USFS is simply following through on a commitment, stated last June, to evaluate its communication function. He said that the aim of the competitive sourcing study is to save taxpayer money, but that it is "premature" to say how much money the plan could save.
The feasibility study is slated for completion by June 30. USFS executives will then review its recommendations, and a final decision would be made in December or January. An RFP, if approved, would not be issued before early 2006, according to Fitzpatrick.
He emphasized that the figure of 100 out of 700 total USFS communications jobs is an estimate that could change pending the study's results.
The groups opposing the competitive sourcing plan, including PEER and the Forest Service Council, a USFS employee union, are using the recent negative media coverage of the PR industry to underscore their objections.
The USFS declined to respond directly to PEER's comments. The Forest Service has worked with six separate advertising and PR firms since 2001, according to public documents.