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Now that I've rejoined the private sector after five years as a member of the executive branch, I am increasingly asked what I think my successors and former colleagues in government will be able to accomplish — what will stay and what will go from the Bush administration. And as a former political appointee, I am often asked if the Obama administration will bring about a wholesale change in the direction of federal IT.
Although, sadly, many issues these days seem to be viewed through a partisan lens, I have to believe IT and the emergence of Web 2.0 speak to all Americans, regardless of political philosophy.
I've always asked a few key questions before embarking on any initiative: Will it provide results to the intended constituents? What does it make better? And how do we measure results?
I can't imagine any new administration not wanting to ask similar questions. That said, here are some things I expect, now that I’m back to being a private citizen:
Much of what has been done of late in IT has been a big departure from the status quo, especially from an organizational perspective. A culture of collaboration and trust is being built. Focused on viewing citizens and other federal employees as customers, in this culture the government works together as one enterprise. Tremendous progress has been made since the inception of FirstGov (now USA.gov) in the Clinton administration. More can and should be accomplished as the Obama administration takes the reigns. The E-Gov initiatives provide the incoming team with a foundation upon which to build.
One such opportunity is the Disaster Assistance Improvement Plan (DIAP), established under Executive Order 13411, "Improving Assistance for Disaster Victims." DAIP will provide a clearinghouse from which disaster victims can obtain information regarding federal assistance, state and local government programs, and private-sector help. This program leverages the capabilities of GovBenefits.gov through use of an existing prescreening questionnaire, a single application, and access to all basic federal and state disaster information.
To be certain, the Obama administration will undoubtedly uncover new tools and opportunities for transformation not yet available. But I have to believe they will continue building a horizontal government that furthers transparency and accountability while protecting our digital assets and citizens' privacy.
Wariness of government contractors dates back decades. In 1941, then-Sen. Harry S Truman, declared, "I have never yet found a contractor who, if not watched, would not leave the government holding the bag."
Having started my career in the private sector as a management consultant supporting the government, I'd like to think I never left anyone holding anything but a finished product. But as a current public servant in the Executive Branch, I can understand the sentiment behind our former President’s remarks.
Nonetheless, with an annual IT budget of approximately $71 billion and a federal IT workforce estimated at around 80,000 employees, the question is no longer if we should use contractors but rather how to best use them.
With more work than federal employees can reasonable be expected to do, and with the projected gray tsunami of pending retirements looming, our ability as federal managers to make effective use of contractor resources is critical to the success of our programs.
And the benefits contractors can provide are numerous:
So given that, we should go ahead and sign a slew of contracts and sleep easy knowing the work will get done, right?
There are certainly challenges in using contractors. As mere hired guns, they may not understand the nature of the government and could lack commitment to the missions they support. We can all relate to stories of projects and systems failing and the blame being laid at the feet of a support contractor or product vendor. In some cases, they probably were to blame.
But that does not change the overall outcome, or lack thereof, of a failed system, a waste of taxpayer resources, and a lack of results produced for the citizen.
So how do we effectively use contractors to avoid these pitfalls? The answer is quite simple: Treat them as trusted partners and manage them much as we would our own employees. A few rules I like to live by:
For their part, contractors must be aware of the special, indeed privileged, role they play in supporting the federal government. Some considerations for those of you in the private sector:
Increasingly, as the scope and complexity of the work the federal government performs increases, we must look to a blended workforce from the public and private sectors to solve problems more efficiently and effectively. A hallmark to our approach at the Office of Management and Budget, is our several Lines of Business initiatives. Those have let agencies solicit the best possible solution, regardless of the provider, public or private. That same premise holds when it comes our most important resource, human capital.