Government workers and contractors share many things – office space, project goals and a drive to improve government programs and services.
Yet there are differences that can lead to tension when public-private partnerships approach a problem from their unique vantage points. As private-sector employees, contractors may want to be more innovative than bureaucracy allows, and being unable to push the envelope can cause frustration.
At the same time, government workers expect contractors to be mission-focused and put their best foot forward toward accomplishing the government’s goals, even if it means accommodating a slower pace and a lower threshold for risk. A bad experience on either side can have a lasting impact on productivity and perception both during and beyond the contract period.
On the other hand, these relationships can be – and often are – extraordinarily positive and powerful. Being in the private sector doesn’t mean that contractors are any less dedicated to the mission of public service, and many government workers, sometimes having been contractors themselves, realize this reality.
Margaret Sarro, IT specialist for the Coast Guard:
I used to be a contractor and now I’m a government employee so this issue always interests me. In the end it really just seems to come down to the people you are working with. If you have a good govie and a good contractor all goes well, but if either one in this equation is weak then things start to fall apart. Right now I have a great relationship with my contractors (I am the Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative), but I’ve also seen what happens when things go really bad (in that case it was a bad govie AND a bad contractor — double whammy).
Chris Cairns, director of strategy and technology at True North Equities:
I think it can be all of those cases depending upon the department, agency, office, division or project. Government-contractor relationship dynamics are very complicated, and there are many reasons why — far too many to cover in one discussion thread. I will say that one of the root-cause issues is the government’s fundamental misunderstanding of how and when to engage industry. I’m not saying that contractors haven’t given the government reason to show reluctance, but in general the government needs to “take down this wall.” This wall is stymieing government’s ability to innovate, deliver value and continuously improve services to the public. This is why the former federal CIO, Vivek Kundra, launched a campaign to increase industry engagement in his 25 point plan.
I retired 22 years ago from the Office of Technical Assistance, for the General Services Administration. I did a lot of procurement contracts for which I then reviewed and authorized payment. I used to say a handshake in the Southwest was better than a 100 page contract in Philadelphia. I have read some very stupid technical proposals and many fewer smart ones. Unfortunately, agency staff was often not qualified to sniff out the problems in the proposals.
Contractors have taken over the IT work at my agency. They do not do the work they are paid to do and government workers have to do their jobs for them. The agency was much better off when government people were in charge. Relations between government workers and contractors are not good. Contractors think we need to do what they tell us to do.
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