Embedded but delicately balanced

Contractors and civil servants work side by side, but each presents distinct management challenges

Keep your feet on the ground

The promise of an embedded contractor workforce ? government and industry working side by side, each contributing to the accomplishment of a goal that benefits all ? can go to one's head like the first scent of spring.

But getting to that success demands discipline, said Judith Douglas, client industry executive at EDS Corp.'s global government industry group. It's all about "clarity, transparency and communication."

To start, Douglas advised, ensure that everyone on your team:

  • Understands not only their role in the project but also their responsibilities to the contract.
  • Understands and appreciates the government customer's responsibilities and roles, its mission, and its customers and constituents.
  • Understands and considers the particular challenges the government customer is facing.
  • Understands the distinctions between the commercial business model and the government customer's business model.
  • Understands and supports the business parameters and rules under which the government customer prefers to operate.

"A good lesson I've learned is to make explicit what the business model is, what the rules of engagement are, what the contract parameters are, [and] what everyone's roles and responsibilities are." Judith Douglas, EDS Corp.

Rick Steele

If you spend each day of your workweek at the same government agency, say good morning to the same people every day, sit at the same desk, log in to the agency
network but are not a government employee, chances are you're an embedded contractor worker and part of the blended workforce.

And you're a harbinger of what's to come, based on the Government Accountability Office's Strategic Plan 2007-2012. "It is clear that today's federal human capital strategies are not yet appropriately constituted to meet today's challenges and drive the needed transformation across the government," the GAO plan states, citing that "the composition of the workforce has been changing, with nonpermanent employees, contractors and other third parties performing functions that were once carried out by career civil servants."

Although the arrangement gives government managers increased flexibility by letting them hire skills on demand and provides income for government contractors, it also presents distinct management challenges on both sides.

That starts with the hiring, said Bhaskar Jayaraman, information technology services director at Avineon Inc., of Alexandria, Va. "With the importance today placed on collaborating, [as a contractor embedding staff at an agency], you need people who can do it," he said. "When you select people for the job, the technology skills are important, but so is the ability to work as a team."

The stresses of the job can also be problematic. "Some people can't handle the stress of changes," Jayaraman said. "So I make sure my program leads monitor how they handle the stress but also how they're doing toward the deliverables."

Avineon's embedded workers return to headquarters every two weeks for a company meeting. It's an opportunity to reinforce not so much company loyalty as a grounding. It also gives Jayaraman a chance to reinforce good behaviors or nip bad ones in the bud.

For example, he said, "maybe I saw someone do something I thought wasn't a problem but that could be or could develop into one, like browsing the Web and answering e-mail. When you're sitting in a cubicle environment, everybody sees what you're doing,, and you have to be aware of perceptions. He may be doing legitimate research, but then he needs to be sure the customer knows that."

TWO WORLDS

The embedded worker is straddling two worlds, fulfilling two related but different goals ? the agency's and the contractor's ? in achieving a single outcome.

It's a significant distinction, said Judith Douglas, client industry executive at EDS Corp.'s global government industry group. It's important "that there's a mutual appreciation by folks in government and folks in industry who are serving government of the different business models under which each operate[s] and how they can best intersect," she said.

A trend toward more performance-based contracting in government will further shade the agency/contractor relationship and the environment for embedded workers.
"Government and the contractor need to focus on managing to the outcome, which is typically not what they've done," said Herb Strauss, vice president of government research worldwide at Gartner Inc., of Stamford, Conn.

Performance-based management represents a change for most agencies, he said, but backing off the micromanagement that often comes as part of time-and-materials contract management can pay off with results. "If I'm nickel-and-diming you about how to do something, all of a sudden you're backing off in terms of innovation."

The Navy Marine Corps Intranet project was a valuable, if painful, learning experience for the Navy and EDS, said Strauss, whom the Navy called in for advice after its relationship with EDS on NMCI went sour.

"At first, they had too many metrics," he said. "An unmanageable number of metrics. And the discrete metrics they had were in many cases meaningless. They become overwhelming, so an executive doesn't get distilled information that says this is a healthy program, or this is not a healthy program and we need to take remedy with it now."

The Navy and EDS renegotiated a number of points and made the project more manageable, Strauss said.

"It's amazing how much folks take for granted ? what they know, or think they know ? about how business and government work," Douglas said. "A good lesson I've learned is to make explicit what the business model is, what the rules of engagement are, what the contract parameters are, [and] what everyone's roles and responsibilities are."

A LITTLE NUDGE

For government, one of the appeals of embedded contractor workers is that agencies need not, and often cannot directly, hire and fire. But agency managers can make their presence felt.

Incentives can be an effective contract management tool, said Mark Miller, assistant director of the contracts management service at the Justice Department. "But I think they're most effective when they go to the [contractor workers] on the front lines, the people who are actually doing the day-to-day work, and not just to the people at the top."

One company balked at the arrangement, Miller said, "so I specified it in the contract."

But input from the contractor is equally important, Jayaraman said. "You have to get the commitment to goals from the team, because unless they believe they can do it, it won't happen."

BACK TO SCHOOL

"The contracting community is and functions as a professional community," Douglas said. Continuing education of contract employees is a good business practice, and responsible companies should be doing it, she said.

"I'd like to see perhaps an independent association lead the charge in getting an industrywide focus on it," Douglas said.

Government contract managers should be included, too. "I think focus needs to be given to the program management folks who are working with contractors day in and day out in a way that a contracting officer does not. Training resources and awareness for that community would be helpful as well," she said.

Although training tools exist, there are not enough of them, Strauss said. "For cost and efficiency, we've gone to a Web-based tool. Web tools have their place. Classroom training has its place. But just taking a class or getting on a Web site doesn't change your behavior. There has to be an ongoing method," he said.

Working out the kinks in this kind of blended workforce can be difficult, Douglas said. "But I really think that this kind of a blended workforce environment can facilitate and accelerate innovation and learning and that that's very
valuable.

"In the end," she said, "it's worth the investment of time and energy. The input of all the different points of view makes for a richer outcome."

Contributing writer Sami Lais can be reached at slais@1105govinfo.com.

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