Feds, IT Companies Propose Worker Swap

Feds, IT Companies Propose Worker Swap<@VM>Private Sector Lends D.C. a Helping Hand

Davis, Kelman and Rohleder

Stephen Rohleder

Stephen Rohleder hopes to loan five of his best midlevel information technology managers to the federal government for up to two years. In return, he hopes to get five midlevel IT professionals from the government to work at Accenture, where he is managing partner of the USA Government practice.

The worker swap will be possible if Congress approves legislation introduced July 31 by Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va. The Digital Tech Corps Act of 2001, H.R. 2678, would help ease the federal government's shortage of highly skilled information technology professionals and jump-start technology projects designed to make government more efficient, Davis said.

Under the program, government agencies would obtain top-notch IT professionals from the private sector who could bring fresh skills and expertise. At the same time, public-sector IT participants would get access to cutting-edge technology and training they might not receive in government ? invaluable experience that would boost morale and help improve performance when they return, said program supporters.

"The cost to government will be minimal, while the benefits will be substantial," Davis said at a July 31 hearing before the House Government Reform subcommittee on technology and procurement policy, which he chairs.

Private-sector IT professionals would get an opportunity for public service without a career commitment and an inside look at how the federal government works. The insights gained would make them valuable contributors to their companies on their return, supporters said.

Rohleder pledged five of Accenture's "best and brightest" to the corps in each of its first two years, and urged other companies to participate. The management and technology consulting firm based in Hamilton, Bermuda, employs 75,000 workers worldwide.

"We are confident that industry IT professionals will rise to the call to serve in the Tech Corps, and government professionals will sign up for fellowships in commercial IT companies," Rohleder said.

Organized labor opposes the bill, however.

"This shouldn't be viewed as any substitute for paying adequate salaries to federal employees, and taking seriously the need to hire new people to replace those who are nearing retirement, and to train this next generation," said Jacqueline Simon, public policy director for the American Federation of Government Employees. The Washington-based union represents 600,000 federal and District of Columbia government workers.

While both public- and private-sector employers are struggling to find enough qualified high-tech workers, the problem is particularly acute in the federal government, where half of the IT staff will become eligible to retire by 2006. Inadequate salaries and long hiring processes are major barriers to recruitment in the federal government, Davis said.

Efforts have been made to improve recruitment and retention, including new salary rates for some IT personnel, but Davis said other immediate actions are needed, such as the Digital Tech Corps.

Personnel swaps between the public and private sector aren't unheard of; for example, defense and aerospace companies have exchanged executives working on major weapons systems.

However, this program is different in that it focuses specifically on midlevel IT professionals, said Steven Kelman, professor of public management at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. Kelman was administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy at the Office of Management and Budget from 1993 to 1997.

"Traditional exchange programs in the government have focused on senior-level executives. We're trying to focus here on 30-year-olds, people with five, six, seven years of experience," Kelman said.

Davis said hundreds of employees could participate. Work agreements would be made between federal agencies and private employers. Salaries and benefits would be paid by each participant's permanent employer, although the legislation allows temporary employers to supplement the salaries of loaned personnel in order to achieve parity with permanent workers, if necessary.

The legislation requires government employees to return to public service after their private-sector stint for a time equal to the loan period. If they don't, they must pay back expenses, such as benefits costs, incurred by the agency during the loan period, except for salary.

Both Martin Faga, chief executive officer of Mitre Corp., a McLean, Va., nonprofit IT company performing federal work, and Ernst Volgenau, president and chief executive officer of systems integrator SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va., said their employees would welcome the chance to participate.

"We have lots of people who would love to spend a couple of years in government working on projects they think are important," Faga said.

Davis' proposal appears to have the support of the administration as well as the IT industry. Comptroller General David Walker, Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James and General Services Administration Administrator Stephen Perry expressed interest in the program at the July 31 hearing.

David Marin, Davis' spokesman, said the bill would be given a "full-court press" in the hope it could be marked up in the Government Reform committee after Congress' summer recess.

Perry, who noted that the IT work-force shortage has made it difficult to develop and manage IT systems at GSA, called the corps a creative approach to providing expertise.

"During the short term, the public sector will continue to have difficulty competing with the private sector to attract and retain highly skilled IT professionals," he said. "Consequently, we will need to aggressively apply recruitment and retention tools."

While James noted that the ethics of such a public-private partnership needed to be explored, she said an employee exchange program could "facilitate the flow of fresh approaches to technical problem solving between the two sectors."

Simon said the federal employees' union objects to the bill because private-sector employees will learn about agencies' weaknesses and strengths in information technology and, upon their return to the private sector, use that information to help their companies win IT work.

Volgenau acknowledged potential conflicts of interest with public-private swaps. A personnel exchange program between the IT industry and the Justice Department announced in 1999 fell through after a year of planning because of concerns, including the perception of unfair advantage given to government contractors, he said. Other concerns included pay inequity, reluctance to loan valued employees and fear that government employees on loan would not return to public service.

Volgenau said all these problems could be overcome. The bill addresses many of them, including pay inequity and the return of federal employees.

Federal regulations preventing conflicts of interest would apply to all participants, Marin said. Participants would be prohibited from on-the-job political activity; wrongful disclosure of bids, proposal information or source selection information; and the wrongful release or use of trade secrets of anyone participants worked with in an official capacity.

Participants would also be subject to financial disclosure requirements and revolving-door laws. These laws include a lifetime ban on representing the private sector on matters worked on in a significant way; a two-year ban on representing the private sector on a broader range of issues; a one-year ban on lobbying the former agency and representing foreign governments; and disclosure of job offers while working on significant procurement projects.

Concerns about unfair advantage in competition for government contracts are "just a red herring," Volgenau said.

"Both the company and the agency are motivated to plan the exchange well. Neither wants to be criticized," he said. "The agency has no motivation to put a person from industry in a compromising position. Nobody would do that." Suzanne Peck, the District of Columbia's chief technology officer, said she hopes the city government will be able to participate in the Digital Tech Corps.

"We would be very supportive of the legislation being broadened to the District of Columbia," she said.

Peck knows firsthand the benefits of an influx of private-sector talent. Since the district's Adopt an Agency Program began eight months ago, senior information technology professionals working for private companies have donated 20,000 hours ? worth $5 million ? to district agencies, Peck said.

Donors include Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., which loaned a chief information officer to the Department of Motor Vehicles for two years, and IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., which donated a team to develop a citywide IT project management office and support software.

Other donors include AT&T Wireless, Maximus Inc., Science Applications International Corp. and Deloitte Consulting.

"It's easy to give dollars," Peck said. "It's much harder to give skills and experience. In the district ... our great need is for human intellectual IT capital, so we are asking for the harder donation to give."

The district asks donors to commit employees for at least 1,000 hours, or half a year. The loaned workers remain employees of their private-sector firms.

Their expertise is welcomed by the city staff, Peck said, because Washington is recovering from a decade of technology disinvestment and could not attract the high-level professionals to do the citywide IT planning it requires.

Swapping employees rather than accepting loaned IT professionals would be difficult now, Peck said, because the city simply does not have staff to spare. But as the district's capabilities grow stronger, "we'd be delighted" to swap, she said.

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