Checking out the other side

Federal and industry information technology managers may soon get a chance to find out if life is actually greener on the other side of the IT fence.

The Information Technology Exchange Program, authorized in the E-Government Act of 2002, would allow IT managers to temporarily trade places with their government or industry counterparts to polish the skills of the federal workforce. Although the program is still in the planning stages with a proposed rule published this month, some union representatives are not convinced it would work.

Under the program, managers would volunteer for work exchanges in the field of IT management for anywhere from three months to two years. The goals would be to improve federal IT managers' skills and facilitate an exchange between government and industry.

"I think you're going to have give and take," an Office of Personnel Management official said after the agency issued the proposed rule Jan. 15. "They will get a flavor of the level of skill and expertise and knowledge on the other side of the fence."

For Bob Woods, chairman of the Industry Advisory Council Executive Committee, this kind of exchange program would go beyond skill improvement and could serve to dispel some stereotypes and allow for more effective partnering.

"I've been on both sides, and I think there is a lot to learn by doing that exchange," Woods said. "My thought has always been that you gain a tremendous amount by walking a mile in the other side's shoes. It allows you to understand their abilities [and] limitations."

For example, the program would allow government employees, who are largely

mission-driven, to understand the pressures of industry, such as catering to stockholders and increasing productivity, Woods said. At the same time, industry representatives can learn why a product or service is critical, and why "99 percent reliability won't do," he said.

The key for making such an exchange a success is top-level management support, said the OPM official, who declined to be identified. Agency officials must outline procedures for choosing candidates, approving assignments and keeping records.

"Top-down buy-in from agency heads — that's really where it has to start," the OPM official said.

However, some union officials are concerned that the program would not benefit federal workers. John Threlkeld, legislative representative for the American Federation of Government Employees, questioned what training government workers would receive from industry that they are not currently getting. The plans so far do not present a sound structure to explain what will make federal workers better employees, he said.

"Just shifting people back and forth without clear direction is, at best, wasteful," Threlkeld said. "What's the point? What are the curricula?"

He said union officials are concerned the program would benefit the private sector by giving them access to federal resources and expertise they otherwise wouldn't get — paid for by taxpayers. Further, he said, the program could be used by industry to get a foot in the contracting door.

"We've been concerned that the rather voracious IT contractor industry would use these experiences to develop contacts that would be used by their employees for eventually gaining business with the federal government," he said.

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