Editorial: Forest vs. trees

In recent months, the drive for ethical purity has reached a fevered pitch

Let’s say it right up front: Ethics are important. In fact, ethics are particularly essential for the government, which is dealing with the public’s money. But in recent months, the drive for ethical purity has reached a fevered pitch.

Two stories made headlines in recent weeks that, although seemingly unrelated, are bound together because of the question of ethics.

One story was the conviction of David Safavian, who had served as chief of staff at the General Services Administration and, most recently, as administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy before he was arrested.

The other was the lead story on the front page of the New York Times June 18 headlined “Former Antiterror Officials Find Industry Pays Better.” The article went on to say that at least 90 former federal counterterrorism officials are now working for companies that collectively do billions of dollars’ worth of domestic security business.

On the face of it, the story simply states the obvious: Industry can pay people more than the government does because it is in business to make money.

But the story raised other questions in our minds. For example, a chart in the Times story listed the 94 former homeland security officials now working in industry and what companies they are working or lobbying for. In doing so, the Times appears to take some liberties. Jim Flyzik, the former Treasury Department chief information officer who worked for the Office of Homeland Security in the White House, is listed as working for the Flyzik Group and for Unisys.

Flyzik told us, however, that he does not work for Unisys, nor is Unisys a client. “I am on a Security Leadership Institute that is ‘sponsored’ by Unisys,” he said.

We focus on this only because the story seems to tar many people with the broad brush of unethical behavior without really stating what is unethical. If there is unethical behavior going on, it should be prosecuted. There are laws against it, and people have been tried and convicted. Safavian is only one example.

But this ethical frenzy has deeper implications. First of all, it is distracting. When it comes down to it, does anybody really think that the problems at the Homeland Security Department come from some revolving door? Or from overpaid vendors? Or from people who come to DHS with a background in homeland security issues?

Secondly, this ethics fever has also instilled a fear among people in both government and industry that hinders agencies from trying new things, such as share-in-savings contracting, which has withered.

The simple fact is that agencies are increasingly dependent on industry for systems and those systems are increasingly complex. The issue of whether government work should be done by vendors seems like a good debate to have. But this ethics fever makes it difficult for industry and government to talk about needs and requirements. Perhaps most important, it seems unfair to paint the important work being done in both government and industry with the overly broad brush of being unethical, especially when ethical standards are so murky.

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About the Author

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of Federal News Radio’s afternoon drive program, The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris, and the founder, publisher and editor of the DorobekInsider.com, a leading blog for the Federal IT community.

Dorobek joined Federal News Radio in 2008 with 16 years of experience covering government issues with an emphasis on government information technology. Prior to joining Federal News Radio, Dorobek was editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week, the leading news magazine for government IT decision-makers and the flagship of the 1105 Government Information Group portfolio of publications. As editor-in-chief, Dorobek served as a member of the senior leadership team at 1105 Government Information Group, providing daily editorial direction and management for FCW magazine, FCW.com, Government Health IT and its other editorial products.

Dorobek joined FCW in 2001 as a senior reporter and assumed increasing responsibilities, becoming managing editor and executive editor before being named editor-in-chief in 2006. Prior to joining FCW, Dorobek was a technology reporter at PlanetGov.com, one of the first online community centers for current and former government employees. He also spent five years at Government Computer News, another leading industry publication, covering a variety of federal IT-related issues.

Dorobek is a frequent speaker on issues involving the government IT industry, and has appeared as a frequent contributor to NewsChannel 8’s Federal News Today program. He began his career as a reporter at the Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H. He is a graduate of the University of Southern California. He lives in Washington, DC.


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