We’ve explored this question before on the blog: At a December Senate hearing, Elaine Duke, the department’s undersecretary for management, admitted DHS doesn’t really know how many contractors it has.
The question came up again this week: In a letter to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs committee, DHS secretary Janet Napolitano said the department had roughly 200,000 contractors — more than the 188,000 civilian employees who work for the department. That number prompted an outraged reaction from senators on the committee; as I mentioned in my story yesterday, they questioned whether contractors or federal employees are “actually making critical decisions” at DHS.
Even that 200,000 number is probably wrong. DHS acknowledges that it’s a rough estimate, based on a formula, and Ed O’Keefe reports today that experts think the department is undercounting its contractors.
The reason, as Duke explained it when I interviewed her recently, is that DHS doesn’t know much about its subcontractors. The prime contractors insist they don’t have to tell DHS how many subcontractors they use (indeed, some say it’s privileged information). That’s why this week’s 200,000 estimate — while imprecise — is actually the most detailed data the department has released since it was founded in 2003.