Effort To 'Privatize' E.D. Library Appears Derailed
Washington--The Education Department is one of three Cabinet agencies that have thus far escaped a Reagan Administration initiative designed to save money by turning "commercial" operations performed by federal employees over to private-sector contractors. And that will apparently not change any time soon.
The first Education Department operation to be considered for "privatization," its research library, has been under study for more than a year. But that initiative is likely to be derailed, at least temporarily, by Congressional action, apparent shortcomings in the study itself, a change in policy under the Bush Administration, or all of the above.
That would be viewed as good news by the research and library communities, the union representing many e.d. employees, and even department officials, who agree privately that federal workers ought to run the library.
The union, the American Federation of Government Employees, counts 14 library workers who could be unemployed, or who could end up taking jobs from other employees with less federal seniority.
But critics also argue that libraries in particular are not appropriate candidates for operation by contractors--unlike such functions as food service or motor-vehicle maintenance, also considered privatization candidates by the Office of Management and Budget.
Hazel Fiers, who, as director of the management-improvement service, heads up the ed's privatization efforts, declined to comment on the advisability of the idea, saying only, "Our goal is to save money for the government and the taxpayers."
O.m.b. officials did not respond to queries about their reasons for putting libraries on the list.
"A library, in order to be effective, has to be connected to the long-term, generic mission of the agency, and this disconnects them from that mission," said Dena Stoner, executive director of the Council for Education Development and Research. "Nobody thinks a cafeteria is tied to the mission of the agency."
The 250,000-volume library is open to the public and is used by researchers, but its primary patrons are department employees.
"Many of us fear a deterioration of services, which would compromise our effectiveness in a way that infe8rior janitorial services do not," said a senior official in the department's office of educational research and improvement. "Contractors have an incentive to cut costs, not to upgrade. Their employees have no stake in the organization."
Many critics agree that some of the more mechanical library services could be contracted. But, they say, government librarians should conduct such functions as research work and acquisitions.
"I've seen good and bad operations in-house and under contract," one library employee said. "The problem is when they leave no policymaking structure and something unexpectel10led comes up."
"Librarians represent institutional memory. They're professionals, peers of their colleagues," said Ann Heanue, a lobbyist for the American Library Association, which has aggressively opposed privatization of government libraries. "It's awfully difficult to draw up specifications for how to answer a reference question."
Ms. Heanue also argued that the library's collection, which contains many rare holdings, such as 19th-century textbooks, should not be turned over to contract employees who may not have specialized training.
Braden Goetz, an aide to Representative Major R. Owens, Democrat of New York, noted that a library contractor would be privy to inside information about the department, which could be used by grant seekers.
"When an employee calls for information," he said, "it telegraphs what's going on in the agency."
He also argued service has deteriorated in agencies that have already contracted their library operations.
Mr. Owens, the only librarian in the Congress, has long been concerned about the privatization of library services. But he is in a particularly good position to block the ed effort as chairman of the Subcommittee on Select Education.
Mr. Owens attached to legislation reauthorizing the department's library-aid programs a provision that would prevent any contracting until at least Sept. 30, 1991, and that would require the General Accounting Office to study the library operation.
The companion Senate bill has no such provision, but a Senate aide confirmed last week that senators had informally agreed to accept it.
His aides said Mr. Owens plans to address the library issue when the subcommittee begins work on reauthorizing the department's re4search operations later this year.
Nonetheless, department officials and others note, even if Mr. Owens were unsuccessful, the library would likely remain in ed hands for some time.
The Reagan Administration put forth the privatization initiative in an executive order and an o.m.b. circular that ordered agencies to identify "commercial" activities and study a minimum amount of identified activities each year.
The studies assess the work done in a given operation, and are to form the basis of both an invitation for contractors to bid for the job and the agency's "most efficient organization" plan, which is effectively its competing bid.
Ms. Fiers confirmed that the study contractor, Rezcorp Inc., was asked to rewrite the education-library study because it did not meet specifications. The second attempt has been under review for more than four months.
Library employees said they have been told the privatization effort no longer presents an imminent threat. And an official in the office of educational research and improvement who is familiar with the study said last week that the agency does not consider it credible.
"If [privatization] does proceed," he said, "it won't be under this study."
"I think some changes need to be made, but I wouldn't go so far as to say it's blatantly inadequate," Ms. Fiers said, adding that the contractor "felt they didn't get adequate information on some things."
Ms. Fiers also confirmed that a task force of the President's Council on Management Improvement, which consists of federal agencies' highest-ranking management officials, is studying the effectiveness of the privatization program over all.
And Frank M. Hodsoll, an executive associate director of the o.m.b., reportedly told council members early last year that the Bush Administration planned to take a second look at the initiative, which has been enforced by threats to cut personnel levels in the budget proposals of recalcitrant agencies.
Several observers said these indications that the Bush Administration may alter the policy would encourage agencies to slow their implementation efforts.
That may comfort Education Department employees who work in data processing, employee training, mail services, audiovisual services, or the motor pool, all of which are scheduled for study this year.