By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Technical knowledge and government IT professionals: An oxymoron?

In my last two posts, I talked about issues involving government-industry communication prior to issuance of requests for proposals (RFPs), with special emphasis on ways to increase the flow of suggestions from industry for improving RFPs from the government's perspective rather than changes that simply buttress one firm's competitive position.

Making such suggestions raises a question about the technical IT knowledge of the government's workforce. Can government IT folks recognize a good suggestion when they see one? And, even more importantly, can they distinguish suggestions that are self-serving from those that are in the agency's interest?

Of course these questions also apply more generally, and not just for the pre-RFP process. The government typically contracts out a larger portion of its work than do private firms undertaking IT projects in the commercial world. This may be a good idea, but one problem it produces is that government often lacks a well-developed career track for people with IT technical skills.  My impression is that the government often tries to make up for this by using nonprofit, federally funded research and development centers (FFRDCs) whose only job is working for government, or hiring small private companies whose niche is providing the government such advice.

The question I would like to put out to blog readers is what is the best way to upgrade the base of technical IT knowledge available to the government.  Is the FFRDC/small firm solution a good one?  (I've heard criticisms about it, but is there a realistic alternative?)  Should government be looking to hire mid-career professionals from industry for a few years, perhaps when they have young children, realizing they won't stay but taking advantage of technical knowledge they have developed?  Should we be hiring young IT technical folks right out of college and putting them on a track that mixes project management and technical review skills? Or some mixture of the above?

One solution is to bring more programming and other straight technical work in-house, but it would seem that if the only argument for doing this is to have a technical team that can deal with contractor techies, it doesn't make sense except as a last resort.

What do you think?  Are there any government people who deny there's a problem?


Posted by Steve Kelman on Oct 01, 2010 at 7:26 PM

Reader Comments

Wed, Oct 27, 2010

Steve, Thanks for the great post. This is an issue I've been sorely concerned about for years. There is another dimension of the problem that you left out, but don't feel bad ;-) Nobody else in either sector seems to consider it either or esle the ones that do dismiss it with anxiety disguised as contempt. The core issue is, as always system integrity and security - which are major impactors of true overall efficiency at the agency or enterprises level - but who knows best how to ensure optimal system integrity, efficiency, security & compliance? I would bet on the geniuses on the multi-billion dollar payrolls of the Russian Mob & rogue generals of "Asia" and on the unsung and/or "undiscovered" under-employed and/or over-worked geniuses right here in the USA. Guess what - corporate America doesn't know about them or doesn't like them or fears them and so do career bureaucrat techies who should be wanting to apprentice themselves to the leading edge innovators on our our side. I gaurantee you billionaire Russian cyber-Lords & Asian crime lords love the fact that well credentialled private & public sector nerds with pensions view untenured mavericks as dangerous competitors. They probably laugh all the way to the money launderers about petty professional jealousy & anxiety keeping our cyber-immune system vulnerable to their superior brain-power and unbridled innovation. The simple solution is to quit fearing unbridled innovation, opening the door & minds to outside The Box creativity. That's exactly what the world's leading cyber-crime syndicates are doing. Now, do you honestly think they care whether a genius has a degree, an impressive CV or a corporate career history? Maybe it's time to get real and get even or ahead of the competition.

Tue, Oct 5, 2010 Mary Davie

Steve, great questions. Many of our project managers supporting other federal agencies in the acquisition of IT have come from the private sector and have prior technical experience. In other cases, our folks have years of experience supporting many different federal agencies with diverse IT projects and gain experience and familiarity with industry capabilities that way. Also, when we used the BetterBuy wiki to post requirements for IT systems and openly asked for help to finalize requirements, it provided a way for "self-policing" meaning as industry contributed to the wiki with ideas and suggestions for technology solutions, other companies had the opportunity to expand upon, challenge or offer alternative solutions. All comments were open for all to see which we then reviewed jointly with the customer who was buying the solution. Using the wiki approach enabled us to reach a broad set of contractors, including small businesses who could openly see and respond to comments and proposed technical solutions.

Tue, Oct 5, 2010 Gorgonzola

The FFRDCs have staff-years of around $350K and numerous implicit conflicts of interest, e.g., sniveling and bowing and scraping to retain their sole-source cash flows. They can be kind of a weak tea to help the government buy things, especially if they are very inbred from government and other nonprofits. They are becoming an outdated model for keeping the IT acq biz honest on the government side of things while surveilling the feelthy contractors. There is a brisk two-way flow of personnel between govt and the FFRDCs which does not raise eyebrows the way people-flows betw government and industry do. It is about time that Congress, OMB and customers look at the role of FFRDCs in the very great number of poorly acquired and badly operating IT systems that the government has.

Mon, Oct 4, 2010 CJ

Can't call them "best practices" but we've had some reasonable successful mitigating practices in place for several years - so yeah, it's not so much of a problem for us. Our IT teams are about 50/50 with most of the senior "design/management" folks being government and most of the junior "production" folks being contracted - almost all are on site. For whatever reason, both sides of the house have a deeper sense of ownership and accountability than I've seen at a lot of other facilities - that's probably the main reason it works.

Mon, Oct 4, 2010

Hire anyone but those scum-of-the-earth contractors that have been keeping the government's computers alive for the last 25 years.

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