Public/private teams are a challenge for CIOs

Latest IT workforce configurations require extra management attention and oversight

Federal employees increasingly work alongside contract workers, blending their skills on project-oriented teams. Such work arrangements among information technology employees can be complex and often require extra attention and oversight, according to management experts who advise senior executives on workplace issues.

An example of such a blended team was the LOGIIC project, a collaboration that included the Homeland Security Department, Sandia National Laboratory, Chevron and several IT vendors. The acronym stands for Linking the Oil and Gas Industry to Improve Cyber Security. The program ran for a year, from July 1, 2005, to June 30, 2006.

LOGIIC’s goal was to identify and find ways to mitigate systemic weaknesses that could make pipelines, refineries and other high-value energy assets vulnerable to cyberattacks.

Members of the project team explored scenarios that could compromise the security of the country’s energy resources, including the possibility that terrorists using wireless technology could break into a refinery’s computers and disrupt flow meters. By most accounts, the team functioned well, despite the diverse backgrounds, cultures and professional agendas of its members.
 
“There were different cultures and value systems that needed to be recognized,” said Ben Cook, a research scientist at Sandia who was on the team. “We had to build trust early on. We had to spend time with one another face to face. Continuity of staffing was critical. Everybody had to have some skin in the game. Industry and government essentially bore equal costs. There was an understanding that the problem couldn’t be solved [by one party] alone.”

Blended IT teams offer some advantages but have some drawbacks, too, said Douglas Maughan, a DHS program manager who oversaw the federal side of the LOGIIC project team.

The LOGIIC project did not have a single leader, Maughan said. Brian Peterson, a Chevron employee, oversaw daily details on the industry side, while Maughan and Cook led the government side.

“It’s really good to have the industry guys involved because you get real-world requirements from them,” Maughan said. “That doesn’t always happen if it’s just the government or research community.”

But creating a cohesive team from two different sides is a major challenge, he said. Policies clash, and managers must navigate  through the points of friction.
 
“There are always policy hindrances, whether they are government or industry,” said Maughan, who is part of DHS’ Advanced Research Projects Agency within the department’s Science and Technology Directorate. “Working together is not a normal thing, so [conflicting] policies may come into play.”

In the LOGIIC project, the government organizations and Chevron established a memorandum of understanding that explained each participant’s responsibility for completing the project. Chevron insisted on it, Maughan said.

“They didn’t feel that they could go forward without an upfront agreement,” he said. “For a [research and development] project, it wasn’t something we would normally do.”

Project teams comprising public- and private-sector employees can function like precision machines when the disparate parts mesh. But when the gears don’t fit, projects grind to a standstill. IT experts with experience managing teams of public- and private-sector employees say chief information officers can greatly increase the odds of bringing projects to successful completion if they pay attention to a few critical factors. They advise CIOs to learn to deal with the challenges of a blended workforce because federal policies are creating more situations in which federal and contract employees must work together on project teams.

Extra help needed

The federal government’s need for IT workers in recent years has grown faster than the public sector’s capacity for hiring and training staff, said Mike Cameron, a director in the acquisitions department at Booz Allen Hamilton. As the federal workforce has fallen behind in its ability to meet the demand, contractors have stepped in to fill the gap, he said.

Cameron said he believes that hiring contractors fills critical skill gaps and saves the government money.

“Agencies recognized that it was cheaper to outsource than to keep that capacity in-house,” he said. “The reality is that the IT world is changing quickly. Technology and best practices change quickly. By outsourcing, you put the burden on industry’s shoulders. It makes good business sense.”

A second factor that has accelerated the growth of public/private teams is the government’s competitive sourcing policy, which the Office of Management and Budget administers. When federal employees face private-sector bidders in competition for jobs that OMB classifies as suitable for competitive sourcing, federal agencies often find that the most cost-effective bids are those based on blended teams.

“These things can get extremely convoluted,” said Bruce McDowell, a fellow and project director at the National Academy of Public Administration, which is studying federal workforce challenges.
 
Culture conflicts
Meanwhile, the ascendance of performance-based contracts is a third factor contributing to federal workforce changes. 

“It’s a big culture change,” Cameron said. “Most agencies are still adapting to that. They’re not used to defining performance agreements when they’re buying labor from industry.”

Agencies sometimes delay bringing in contractors because they are not sure how to contractually define the work responsibilities of private-sector employees, Cameron said. “You have to think about that person in terms of a specific benefit they were hired to bring to the project.”

The success or failure of public/private teams often turns on the ability of leaders to gain the confidence of employees on the opposite side. If employees know that their supervisors fully support the leaders on the other side, they are more likely to perform well under the arrangement, said Wendi Hawk, director of intelligence operations at e.magination, a digital design company.

Leaders must manage expectations, foster communication and engage in contingency planning, Hawk said. Managers benefit from establishing realistic timelines and deadlines. They should also tailor demands to the team’s availability to work overtime and to members’ skill levels, she added.

A role for leaders
Even when executive attention is sufficient, however, managers should not ignore the potential for friction between government and contractor employees, experts say. The differences in corporate and agency cultures can be stark, said Gordon Brown, founder and president of Plexent, a Dallas-based IT management services firm that has had contracts with DHS and federal systems integrators.

Reaching consensus on risk-management strategies can help bridge the culture gap, Brown said. His company advises clients that adopting one or more management standards that have international standing can help them achieve that consensus. The standards include ISO 20000 for IT services management; ISO 27001, an information security management system standard; and the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), a framework of best practices for delivering high-quality IT services.

“The federal government is requesting that integrators have ITIL capability and expertise, and they are starting to ask for ISO 20000 certification that will give them the ability to manage these blended workforces,” Brown said. The more the two sides have similar skills and practices, the easier it becomes to manage the blended team, he said.

Doing it right
Keane, an IT services company, has worked hard to master the dynamics of public/private teamwork. For the past five years, Keane has been a partner of the Air Force to modernize the service’s systems for tracking aircraft engines and other aviation parts. In the past, IT contractors tended to work on such projects in isolation, engaging the government only after developing a solution that was ready for testing. But that approach is no longer acceptable, said Rick Easom, senior engagement manager at Keane.

“We bring the components together to make sure that the requirements and the architecture are something that everyone agrees on,” Easom said.

Communication among the various groups involved in a project is especially important when the team members are separated geographically. Keane’s employees are in Atlanta. Its Air Force client, Gunter Annex, part of Maxwell Air Force Base, is in Alabama. Subcontractors are scattered in various other locations.

E-mail, Web tools, conference calls and on-site visits help the members function as a team, he said.

The team developed a successful supply chain management system that reduced the time required to track and requisition aircraft parts from an average of one and half  weeks to less than a minute, Easom said.

However, Keane didn’t start out knowing all the answers about making public/private project teams successful. When Keane employees joined a government team created to upgrade a Justice Department case management application, their public- and private-sector cultures collided.

“It was a culture shift for [Justice] to relinquish control,” said Greg Swirdovich, senior engagement manager at Keane. “We had to put a lot of processes in place. We developed a whole new way of doing business together.”

To short-circuit problems before they became disruptive, the project team members held regular sessions in which employees on both sides accepted responsibility for project risks.

“If we had to initiate a change request because of a delay caused by something on the federal side, they had to acknowledge that [failure] in the change request,” Swirdovich said. “Before, that was almost taboo to have in writing a document that said, ‘This delay was caused by my failure to complete a timely review.’ Before, you just didn’t point that out.”
Recipe for successFew no-fail recipes exist for blending public- and private-sector employees on project teams. However, by paying attention to a few simple details, federal leaders can improve the chances that the employee mix will produce good results.
  • Monitor staff morale. New ways of performing tasks can be upsetting to employees.
  •  Make sure each organization’s senior leaders fully support the effort.
  • Use common standards of risk management to bridge cultural differences.
  • Keep all team members involved and informed during the project. 
  • Make all team members accountable for the success of their part of the project.
  • Regularly assess the team’s progress.
— John Pulley

A mix of coporate and public service expectationsBefore agencies can achieve success with project teams of federal workers and contract employees, they should understand the challenges of such work arrangements, said Thomas Mullen of the PA Consulting Group.
  •  Agency employees often try to maximize gains for their interests at the agency. Contract employees typically try to keep a project’s cost, schedule and functionality aligned. Those differences of perspective are ingrained through experience.
  • Government employees sometimes harbor unrealistic expectations of what contractors can accomplish.
  • Federal employees sometimes agree too readily to water down project functionality rather than demand that the contractor meet project requirements.
— John Pulley

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