Stan Soloway

COMMENTARY

Government officials need to think, then speak

Simplistic rhetoric too often shows ignorance

Stan Soloway (soloway@pscouncil.org) is president and CEO of the Professional Services Council.

The best professor I had in college conducted the entire course as an ongoing debate. In every class, he’d stalk the room, cigarette dangling from his lips, and continuously upbraid us to “think, dammit!” In his class, woe be to anyone who chose lofty rhetoric over more thoughtful comments informed by underlying facts and analysis. Today, that advice has never been timelier.

I am not speaking here of the current debate over government spending and fiscal policy. Rather, I am speaking of the increasing number of comments emanating from various government officials as they prescribe solutions for problems that are far more complex than they acknowledge and thus would not be solved by their prescription.

One good example of this came from an agency deputy CIO who complained recently that the contractor workforce supporting his organization was inadequately trained, and as a result, he was considering insourcing a significant portion of the work — and would, as a bonus, save money by doing so. Let’s not debate the question of savings, although the evidence is strong that he is wrong on that point. Instead, let’s focus on the statement and his proposed solution.

Assume for the moment that his observation about his contractor workforce is true. Some of the blame for this almost certainly lies with the contractor. But prior to reaching premature conclusions, it would also be prudent to also carefully assess how the agency’s acquisition strategies and practices might have contributed to the problem. For example, despite years of experts advising otherwise, the government frequently continues to dictate the precise mix of skills and experience a contractor must bring to the mission and the labor rates the government is willing to pay for those capabilities. In so doing, the government often ties contractors’ hands and inhibits the kind of high performance and innovation that might otherwise be possible. If that were true in this case, it would suggest that a wholly different solution is in order. After all, you wouldn’t tell a contractor to paint your house blue and then declare the contractor incompetent because he painted the house blue. But, given the all too frequent disconnects between the operational and acquisition communities, it is highly likely that the question was never explored.

Then there is the question of insourcing the work. In some instances — particularly when the agency lacks critical, core capabilities to manage and oversee its own missions — insourcing might be part of the solution. But many of the specialized skills the government seeks are in short supply across the economy. As such, among other things, they command compensation that far exceeds what the government can pay directly and often expect other employment characteristics, including pay for performance, professional development, innovation and more, which are not always hallmarks of the government. Therefore, it is simplistic to assume the agency could compete broadly for or afford directly the people with the skills the CIO suggests he needs. That is where the flexibility of the private sector can play a critical role, if enabled to do so.

Contractors do not always perform at the highest level nor is the government the source of all, or even most, contract issues. Yet, as the government continues to tighten its belt, its need to access technology and innovation to enhance mission performance and drive sustainable efficiencies is nonetheless growing. Thus, it is more important than ever that these and other, similar challenges be considered carefully and from a holistic perspective.

Simplistic proclamations lacking full situational perspective and information just won’t cut it, and solutions by fiat don’t work. We’d do far better bearing in mind my professor’s admonition, “Think, dammit.”

Reader Comments

Fri, Mar 25, 2011

This article is as bad as the screeds from union presidents. Just like a union thinks everyone should be a dues-paying union member and can't understand why anyone might not agree with that, a beltway bandit trade association head seemingly can't conceive why contracting something out should not be the default solution to all new mission requirements.

Thu, Mar 24, 2011 NH Northern VA

Timely comments. When was the last time you read that a major federal contractor's proposal was deemed non-compliant due to unrealistic prices? In the era of "Best Value", contracting officers, whose careers depend only on awarding contracts not on the five-year success of them, are incentivized to award to the most cost effective team that fits the technical requirements. No analysis is ever done to determine IF the stated rates can attract the needed talent rather a CO merely compares rates with similar firms. This dysfunction results in awards made to firms that will surely fail (SBINet) because they can't deliver based on the rates they bid. The selection committee doesn't get fired if the contractor fails....they merely rebid the work and stay employed. Where is the tie-in between the selection committee and the ultimate performance? It doesn't exist but should.

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