Anonymous: Why so few skilled managers?

Address the brain drain, and don’t penalize the best people in government for staying

Editor’s note:  Federal Computer Week generally requires commentary pieces to have a byline. However, in this case, we agreed to make an exception and publish this article anonymously at the writer’s request because we think it addresses a topic worth debating.

As a former government employee, I find it interesting to hear Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, complain about the level of outsourcing in programs such as the Homeland Security Department’s SBInet program.

Waxman’s major complaint is that the government is outsourcing much of the work of managing the program to companies such as Acquisition Solutions and Booz Allen Hamilton. The work must be outsourced because the government cannot retain or attract a sufficient number of skilled acquisitions, program management and information technology employees to adequately staff programs with its own people.

And the primary reason the government can’t retain or attract those employees is because Congress has not dealt with the government’s noncompetitive wages for employees in critical skill areas such as acquisition, program management and IT. For years people have decried the brain drain in those areas. The lack of skilled senior managers is arguably the primary reason that the government’s major programs go astray. Yet it is easier for Congress to fund a $1 billion budget overrun on a program than to pay a great manager $1 million a year to keep it on track.

What does the private sector pay for a chief financial officer, chief information officer, chief operations officer, general manager or president of a $1 billion enterprise? A salary at the low end of the scale might be $300,000, but people in those jobs usually also receive stock and bonuses that can bring their total annual compensation to more than $1 million.

Contrast that with the federal government, which pays the director of the 2010 census — a $12 billion-plus program — an annual salary of $168,000. The question Waxman should ask next is how many of the contract employees working on SBInet are paid more than the government’s SBInet program manager?

There is no mistaking that the government is paying market rates for more than 80 percent of its workforce in important skill areas. The members of that workforce are called contractors.

The real shame is that a large number of the people who leave government come back to work on programs such as SBInet, except this time they work as private-sector employees. The government can pay market rates for them, but not for its own employees.

Congress should fix that situation by creating a Senior Performance Service for employees with critical skills. Let those employees be paid a market rate for their skills based on commonly available industry salary benchmarks. Create a bonus structure overseen by a congressional committee and base it on meeting tangible performance goals. As in the private sector, make those employees’ continued employment contingent on continued performance. A condition of their employment should be termination with two weeks’ notice at their manager’s discretion, just as though they were contract employees.

Members of Waxman’s committee are correct to complain that many of the skilled employees necessary for managing government programs can be found only in the private sector. The good news is that they are part of the only institution that can solve the problem.

The author is a former government executive who asked to remain anonymous.

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