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Tim Young

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Posted: 7/21/2008 - 0 comment(s) [ Comment ] - 0 trackback(s) [ Trackback ]

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:
  • Contractors can provide the surge capacity to handle crises and special projects without permanently expanding the bureaucracy – we can use them when we need them and not a moment longer.
  • Contractors can provide specialized skills the government either does not have or only has in limited supply – and at a moment’s notice.
  • Where the federal bureaucracy might be slow, inflexible or incompetent—and don’t tell me you haven’t thought that before—contractors can provide a more agile alternative
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:
  • Acknowledge their integral role in support of our efforts – don’t treat them as second class citizens who have to come and go through the back door.
  • Establish common goals with clear objectives and measurable performance standards.
  • Share risks and rewards equally and at all levels.
  • Communicate openly, honestly and frequently.
  • Leverage the myriad management and procurement tools at our disposal, for example, earned value management, firm fixed price statements of work, cost-plus incentives.
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:
  • Understand the big picture. What is the mission being supported? Who is your client’s client?
  • Offer dissenting viewpoints. Challenge conventional wisdom, especially where program outcomes are in jeopardy.
  • Work yourself out of a job. You are not here so that the government can permanently become dependent on you.
  • Respect federal employees for the public service they provide. They may not have stock options like you do, but they are working for the greater good of our country. Don’t forget that.
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.
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