FCW Forum: Too many contractors?

Do feds realize how good they have it?

In response to a recent letter about pay issues, one reader wrote to say that feds who complain about their compensation may not realize how good it is. The reader, who has public- and private-sector experience, says civil engineers in the private sector often make much less than they would in government.

“Also, the paid vacation time and holidays in the [federal government] will be about twice what a starting civil engineer would get in the private sector. The heath insurance support from the federal government is worth thousands more than the typical private firm would offer. Job security is also much greater.”

We asked readers to share thoughts on the FCW Forum. Here is a sampling of what they had to say. For this article, comments have been abridged and edited for style and typos. To post your own comment, visit the blog or e-mail us at letters@fcw.com.

“My agency has undergone several [reductions in force] and will be having another one soon. Job security? To make things worse, several of the employees who were RIF’ed have disabilities and have been looking for jobs for nearly a year. Yes, we may get more days off and more holidays, offset by low pay. The health benefit plan is one of the better benefits for federal employees. I forgot to mention the dangerous work conditions. I have been left in the building during many evacuations. I have a trained service dog to alert me to the alarms.”

***

“If we are so well paid in government, explain to me how every study ever done on IT compensation showed that IT salaries are at least 30 percent lower in government than in the private sector…The person that said all this good stuff about pay, job security, etc., must be in line for a big promotion and wants to show they are buddies with the selection official. Yes, another thing about government employment, merit promotion really isn’t.”

***

“Can there be any doubt? When I was a fed I had 26 days of annual and 13 days of sick leave per year, more than twice what I have now as a contractor. As for job security, it seemed like nearly everyone in civil service believed themselves entitled not just to ‘fully successful’ annual performance ratings, but ‘highly successful’ or ‘exceptional,’ and many were willing to file a grievance if they didn’t get it.”

***

“Contracting work for the government is where the money is, if that is what you seek. I decided less stress, better working conditions, better benefits and pretty good job security were worth more than the larger salary. I took a $16,000 pay cut to become a govie. Two and a half years later, and it [is] still the best choice. Government careers are good for the highly successful and exceptional. My experience has been, and I also saw this as a contractor at a government agency, it is the less-than- fully-successful folks that think they don’t receive what they think they deserve.”

— John Stein Monroe

Do agencies rely too much on government contractors? That question, which Federal Computer Week editors put to readers recently on the FCW Forum blog, apparently touched a nerve.

Our question was prompted by a report from the Government Accountability Office that criticized the Homeland Security Department for its liberal use of contractors. GAO was especially concerned that contractors are carrying out work that is inherently governmental — preparing budgets, developing policies and regulations, and coordinating intelligence — without sufficient agency oversight.

Asked if they saw similar problems in their own agencies, more than a dozen readers — many of them long-term federal employees — responded, expressing concern or outright alarm about the situation. Here is a roundup of their comments grouped into four primary areas of concern. You can read the original blog posting and full responses at www.fcw.com/blogs/forum. For this article, the comments have been abridged and edited for style and typos.

1. Loss of in-house expertise
Numerous readers were less concerned about the loss of government jobs than they were about the loss of institutional knowledge. Contractors can carry out any number of functions, but agencies cannot afford to lose the expertise altogether.

***

“To address many IT issues, we need an experienced government employee who knows how things work and more important, how things work together. Such knowledge resides in the heads of the 20-plus-year government employees. But there is no…10- or five-year government employee backing them up. Therefore, the 20-year veteran is swamped with requests for his time, and overall the government loses, and costs go up.”

***

“As a government contractor who tries always to think like the taxpayer I am, I see a federal workforce that is stretched too thin. Government agencies lack the numbers of subject-matter experts — especially in professional specialties such as program management and systems engineering — needed to manage large projects and assure satisfaction of technical requirements… “The taxpayer, federal agencies and the contracting community all would be better served if federal agencies staffed up in [their] management and technical specialist ranks.”

2. Blurred lines in government/contractor relations
People often talk about the blended workforce, in which government and contractor employees work side by side, as if they all work for the same team. But that concept makes some readers nervous.

***

“I have watched this occurring more and more for the last 15 years. What really irks me is finding out later that a certain rep for such and such office is a contractor but never mentioned it at a meeting. They identified themselves as so and so from office XYZ, giving you the impression ‘government worker.’ Also, when I am told that that person must OK a proposal before it can go forward. Really bad.”

Such concerns, though, are often brushed off by managers, one reader said.

“I am frustrated by the casual attitude of the government’s approach to monitoring contractor interaction with the customers. I have been chewed out and threatened with my job for reporting improper communications between the government and the contractor personnel because it would embarrass the government…I feel that the contractors have a place in government. However, that being said, it is not in the front seat.”

3. Who’s watching out for government?
Government contractors inherently serve two organizations: Their client and their employer. Agencies should never forget that basic economic reality, wrote several readers, including some contractors.
< br />“As a contracting officer technical representative at the Veterans Affairs Department for the last 23 years, I have seen too many circumstances where contracted employees are being used to sustain government responsibilities… This started out as a partnership where civil servants worked side by side with contracted employees. Not only have the lines and relationship become blurred as to who is serving the best interest of the taxpayer and who is in it for a profit, but also who is serving whom.”

***

“I’ve been a government contractor for over 15 years, and no matter how hard I try to remain objective when making decisions for the government’s best interests, I am always faced with pressure from my employer to increase revenue. I am frequently asked by the government to make decisions that they should be making…Let’s bite the bullet and hire the government workers we need.”

4. Outsourcing’s savings are questionable
Some readers believe agencies have not taken a close enough look at the hidden economics of outsourcing.

“Yes, far too many federal jobs are being outsourced... How can organizations justify outsourcing positions, paying more for that position, and then having that same person in the same position for 25 years?”

***

“I continue to tell anyone who will listen that the cost of outsourcing has generally been at a cost of two to one: It takes two contractors to fill the position of one dedicated civil servant for double the pay.”

But on the flip side...two contractors pointed out some advantages of managing contract staff.

“You know why agencies use contractors? Reason No. 1: They cost less to manage. Look beyond the [time-and-materials] contract rate. With contract staff, there are no benefits, sick leave, annual leave, management systems to support those functions, government employee hiring process, etc. Reason No. 2: Easy to remove and replace if they are not working out. An agency can move contractors in and out freely as the work and the requirements demand it. A flexible workforce is easier to manage and can make an agency more competent.”

***

“Another issue is that federal workers are strongly encouraged to change jobs, even agencies, very frequently; ‘stamping their ticket.’ Staying in one office and really learning the job is generally discouraged. Not only are many offices manned primarily by contractors, but those few real feds that are in the office are recent arrivals who don’t know the office — and often don’t know the agency — with the result being that the office succeeds or fails based upon the quality of the support contractors. Fortunately, most of those I’ve worked with over the years have been very good, and their goals seem to be closely aligned with those of the agency. I’ve worked with a number of program management office contractors who do a great job, even if it is somewhat disconcerting to know that their company is sometimes participating in or competing for the work they are overseeing.

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