Don't take the national security contractor workforce for granted

As the government moves through the COVID-19 crisis, it is critical that government leaders make the right decisions and remember that contractors are an essential part of the solution.

As the government moves through the COVID-19 crisis and asks its employees and contractors to telework from home, work in small group shifts, or perhaps not come in and work at all - even on fully funded programs, I was reminded of a maxim from my father.

He was one of the early employees of SRA International and a noted Vietnam era combat veteran and soldier. He said to me when I first went in the Army myself, “you’re going to fall in love at times with the Army, but don’t be too disappointed when it struggles to find ways to love you back.”

I pondered that for many years, trying to understand this enigmatic bit of advice, but what it really meant didn’t sink in until I was a senior government official in the national security community. Then I saw that sometimes when a large institution undertakes its actions through the local decisions of its many constituent parts, it somehow finds ways to act in contravention to its own long-term interests. It ends up not “loving” the people it needs the most.

This phenomenon has happened too often over the past twenty years to the high-tech cleared contractor workforce that serves the national security community. Sensible and completely understandable decisions taken at local levels by government managers or prime contractors, who have a purposefully limited scope of authority, end up potentially damaging the long-term viability of the entire institution. 

This has happened during the many budget imbroglios and sequestration crises over the past 10 years and is happening again in parts of the national security community as agencies respond to the Coronavirus pandemic.

 In those cases, a partial shutdown of some kind was necessary because of a lack of funding or, at this current time, because a government site must be thinned out or closed as we aim to limit the spread of the virus through social distancing. 

Nobody would argue with the absolute necessity of both of those actions. It would be wrong in a budget crisis to spend money the government has not appropriated, and wrong in a viral pandemic to keep sites fully staffed in the middle of the COVID-19 response.

But, the workforce implications of both necessary decisions are profound. And only one half of the government’s national security workforce is insulated from the long-term debilitating effects that the stopping and starting of work can have on technology professionals who are looking to have a reliable and coherent career path.

Our government workforce is comprised of both government employees and contractors of course, and both parts perform critical and complementary roles. In the case of the government employees, interruptions to their work (caused by budget issues or pandemics) do not disrupt the flow of their career or their paycheck…. or get made up in arrears. 

In the case of their partners working side-by-side with them from the highly skilled technology contractor community, that is often not the case. If contractors get sent home for any reason or are not allowed to work and bill on projects, they often must take leave (with or without pay) or the company that employs them must carry them on overhead. All of which can be done - but none of which are sustainable. 

I once got a call on a Thursday afternoon from a national security customer who said “due to the budget issues on the Hill, on Monday I run out of money for half your people so you’ll have to keep them home – perhaps for a few weeks.” I reminded him that these employees were cleared computer scientists and crypto-mathematicians with long professional careers - not day laborers. What makes them want to stay in this industry –the profession of a cleared national security professional - if they are being treated like day laborers who can be picked up (or not) for the day depending on funding or site access?

He agreed of course, thought it was a terrible situation and was sympathetic, but the conversation ended with an “above my paygrade shrug.” He was doing his job – he was a government PM out of money for now – and I couldn’t blame him. The challenge of how my company and thousands of other companies were supposed to go about giving cleared technology professionals a coherent and rewarding career when they were on stop-start-stop-start programs was somebody else’s problem.

But this long-term institutional necessity, for the contractor community to maintain, for the exclusive use of its government customers, a highly trained cleared technology workforce ready to shift, surge, or deploy on short notice, needs to be in somebody’s paygrade. These professionals take a long time to recruit and “grow.” The government is short tens of thousands of them – and critical work goes unfilled. We have become so accustomed to being perennially short of the needed workforce that this self-inflicted situation has become an accepted scandal the national security community has learned to live with.

When I was the chairman of the Professional Services Council, I met in 2013 with the then Secretary of Defense and the Deputy Secretary. I told my day laborer vignette directly to them. They were also very sympathetic and extremely attendant to the need to treat their contractor workforce with the same care and long-term vision as their government workforce. They viscerally grasped that contractors were their workforce and one that takes a long time to assemble and train. They bemoaned the fact that mid-level managers in their organization were not following the guidance from above to be creative and productive in keeping the workforce engaged during the budget impasse.

That was the good news. They were disturbed by the phenomenon and knew it needed to be addressed. The bad news was finding someone “below their paygrade” who could own a long-term institutional plan to give contractors the same crisis-proof reliability in their career. 

In addressing these issues, nobody is talking about hand-outs or giving a contractor a job for life – we all know that we compete and work program by program. Programs start and programs end. This was about when a contractor is being prevented by the customer from doing the work for which they are currently contracted - for whatever reason. This was about insulating the long-term institutional requirement of building and maintaining a reliable trained workforce from the shut-down/stand-up decisions an agency or program manager may need to make in a crisis.

Every time our government goes through a crisis like a budget-driven shutdown or, as now, a pandemic-driven stoppage of some work, we lose technology talent to the commercial market. Why bother with a long intrusive clearance process only to get to work for a fickle customer who backstops their internal workforce during a crisis but not their contractor partners? During sequestration I watched some of our best data scientists in our Austin Texas office, after being told to stop work for three weeks on their program, walk across the street to a commercial tech company and never come back.

On Friday afternoon, OMB, DoD, and DHS all put out guidance explicitly recognizing this phenomenon – declaring the contractor work force essential, part of our critical infrastructure, and imploring agencies to be flexible, adaptive, and think long term in maintaining as normal a work schedule as possible for contractors. In the case of necessary site closures or shift work, this could simply mean some short term provisions to let the contractors make up the work they will miss after the crisis passes, or accept unclassified site work plans that would bolster the mission goals of the classified site work. The guidance suggests using special procurement authorities and other means to keep this workforce hale and engaged.

Even so, some agencies, sub-agencies, programs, sites, and even prime contractors are making COVID-19 decisions that are not inline with this intent – a directive from our national security authorities. These decisions will hurt many smaller companies and drive talented and cleared technology workers out of the industry – deepening the hole we are in for qualified and cleared personnel. Our adversaries are going to school on how we handle this crisis. What lessons are they learning? 

We cannot afford to let the necessary short-term decisions about funding or site access undertaken in a crisis undermine the longer-term necessity of building and maintaining a high-tech cleared contractor work force. And a bail out is not necessary to do this. In fact, in the case of the COVID-19 crisis, the money is already funded for the programs on which some contractors are being told their work is limited during the social distancing period. As the OMB and DOD guidance states, let the contractors do their work and bill their hours over the course of time so that individual professionals can have the same comfort as their government counterparts about the long term.

No extra money is needed by the government to keep its contractor work force intact during a crisis, but some ownership of the situation is. Government officials at all levels, not just at the top, should be cognizant of their responsibility to keep both their workforces intact and motivated during crisis moments.