Against contractors


This weekend SEPTA1 is opening a new train station in Lansdale. It is between two existing stations, and will help deal with some overflow parking when nearby Lansdale station undergoes parking garage construction. Building this station, the first new one since 1997, has been a low-profile affair. The construction was pretty quick, as transit agencies go, and was conducted with in-house labor and resources.

That last fact stood out to me as I read another SEPTA story in the Inquirer yesterday about the trains that spray leaves off the track in fall.

These wash trains weren’t made specifically for the purpose of cleaning away leaves. Between foul weather and the vibrations from the moving train, the gear takes a beating. Mechanics improvise makeshift, low-tech solutions to keep the thick gel flowing properly and the wash trains running.

They proudly point out how a particular problem was solved simply by punching holes in a pipe, or how a flatbed car’s equipment, including a shelter for the two 265-gallon gel tubs, a generator, a fuel tank, and high-pressure electric pumps for the water all were installed in-house.

There’s a pattern here. Quality, affordable work being done by the people SEPTA already employs. This is a theory that deserves further consideration by governments and agencies at all levels. Former Bush administration official (and Philadelphian) John DiIulio explores this theme as it applies to the federal government in his book, Bring Back the Bureaucrats.

It’s a good read, and it makes a good point. We associate shrinking the federal workforce with shrinking the federal government, but the two aren’t the same. The taxpayer’s money is still being spent, it’s just going to a different person’s paycheck. Many duties of the government are farmed out to contractors (often no-bid contractors) in the interests of efficiency, but those same jobs could be done better and more cheaply with government workers.

Associating efficiency with the government workforce is not something you often hear, but when you consider situations like the one above, you’ll see it makes sense. SEPTA already employs these people, so the cost of finding them is eliminated. And their interests align far more with the agency’s than an outside contractor’s would. If they do a bad job, they have to live with it and fix it. If a contractor does a bad job, he either moves on to another project, or gets paid more to correct his own errors.

I’ve been a permanent employee and a temp, and believe me you approach the two jobs differently. It may be time to consider that difference and change our approach to government hiring.

  1. The Philadelphia-area mass transit authority, for you non-Pennsylvanians