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Updated Saturday, November 24, 2012 at 09:01 PM

Contract out more state services? Decisions overdue

By Jordan Schrader
The (Tacoma) News Tribune

In a process that is behind schedule, state government has found a few companies willing to take over work now performed by state employees who manage government websites and deliver mail to far-flung state offices.

Decisions could come soon from Gov. Chris Gregoire's administration on whether it would be more efficient to turn to the private sector for those services.

Also waiting is a decision with more expensive consequences — whether to turn over more state printing to private companies. The state expects go out to bid for those services in the first week of December, but it likely will fall to Gov.-elect Jay Inslee's administration to make the final call.

In a sweeping reorganization law last year that created the Department of Enterprise Services (DES), the Legislature required governors to review one to six services every two years to see if they could be done more efficiently by the private sector. It exempted that process from rules for allowing state employees to bid on the work.

Lawmakers mandated that one of the first subjects be printing, which has been the focus of periodic debates over whether the state should jettison its print shop.

Gregoire's budget office chose to also look at two other services. One is the delivery of state mail outside Thurston County, now done by the Consolidated Mail Services program in DES. The other involves website and "e-government" services. Those include design and maintenance of agencies' websites, plus online transactions and management of the state's Access Washington Web portal that links to other sites.

Decisions in all three areas originally were slated to be made between July and October. But the bidding process proved more difficult than expected, said Roselyn Marcus, assistant director for contracts at Enterprise Services.

Typically, the state would have a project in mind and ask businesses how much it would cost to carry it out. In this case, companies are pitching the projects.

"We're going out for something that would cover any project that would possibly come in," Marcus said. "... That's taken a lot longer, and taken a lot more input from a lot more stakeholders."

All that is happening in a new department that contains former parts of five other agencies. Marcus said future bidding processes will be easier.

She said she was surprised that just five potential contractors bid on Web services and just two on mail. The department declined to identify the bidders, saying that information falls under an exemption to public-records law involving preliminary drafts and recommendations.

The request for printing bids could gather more interest than the others. Some in the printing industry have said private companies can do the work more efficiently, while public-union leaders disagree.

Some $7 million in printing work is already farmed out to the private sector. Work being considered for outsourcing includes more than $8 million in spending on bulk printing of big orders, storage and delivery.

In the other areas, the state is examining some $1.5 million worth of website maintenance and design and about $700,000 worth of mail pickup and delivery.

Enterprise Services is finishing its review of the mail bids. They also must be examined by the governor's Office of Financial Management (OFM), which is already reviewing the website bids.

OFM could decide to accept none of the bids if it doesn't foresee cost savings or efficiencies.

Decisions on all three services must be made by June 30.


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