DOD drives deeper wedge between feds and contractors

Defense contractors worry about maintaining the delicate balance of the federal workforce

Federal employees probably wouldn't be surprised to see a contractor arrive at the office in an orange jumpsuit. Nor would a contractor blink if feds were to show up in Tommy Bahama shirts from the new Tropical Temptation collection.

The outfits would match the image that each holds of the other: Contractors are greedy enough to shoot their mother for a dollar, and feds treat work like a day at the beach.

As funny as those old stereotypes might sound, they reflect the often-bitter cultural divide between contractors and feds that, depending on whom you ask, is about to get wider.

Under a Defense Department rule that went into effect in September, contractor employees are required to identify themselves as such in all forms of communications, whether in person, on the phone or in e-mail messages.

At a time when contractors outnumber feds in some offices, the rule is intended to ensure that DOD managers do not inadvertently involve contractors in sensitive work that should be set aside for feds. The rule, in short, will show who’s on which side.


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But some contractors fear that the rule could undermine the teamwork that's essential in a blended workforce, in which feds and contractors must work side by side on a daily basis. “How do you maintain unity of community when segregation is forced?” a reader named Skully asked in a comment posted at FCW.com.

It’s a tough question, especially given the existing distrust between feds and contractors in many government offices.

Bob Woods, a retired federal official and now president of Topside Consulting, said the rule only exacerbates the situation. Worse yet, it’s not even necessary, because feds know who the contractors are. If not, they’re not being diligent, he said. “The rule creates an awkward situation for everybody,” he said.

Another reader commenting on the story pointed out that the pink badges contractors wear are already pretty conspicuous. The lack of identification is not the problem — it is the “cries of ‘unclean!’ when the contractors pass through federal workspace that is distracting.”

As some contractors see it, DOD might just as well post a scarlet letter on their foreheads, marking them as people whose loyalties are not to the customer or the mission but to the bottom line.

But as touchy as the issue might be, contract employees know who is writing their checks.

“Some people would be very offended by that statement,” but it’s true, said Peter Tuttle, a former Army contracting officer and now senior procurement policy analyst at Distributed Solutions. He also said federal employees need that “healthy bit of skepticism.”

The rule isn’t bad, said Kevin Carroll, retired program executive officer of DOD’s Enterprise Information Systems office and now president of the Kevin Carroll Group, a consulting company. It will let other contractors and officials know whom they’re talking to.

The identity question is especially a problem outside federal offices — where badges are not required —in e-mail, and on the phone.

The lack of identification by contractors “clouds the water on a daily basis and causes delays and delivery of substandard technology and products to the DOD,” a federal employee wrote, adding: “Anyone not seeing this as a problem with the current procurement system is a victim of ‘.mil’ envy.”

There are ways to curtail segregation.

When Carroll worked in government, he included contractors in all of his office’s work and even invited them to social events. Overall, he tried to make them teammates. Over time, contractors usually became more loyal to the office than their companies, he said.

“It is just a matter of leadership and inclusion, with a careful eye on preventing conflicts within the workplace,” Carroll said.

Likewise, the mutual stereotypes need not be a problem.

Many people are good workers, and managers need to attend first to the motivated people in the office, Woods said. Then managers should deal separately with the select few who match the contractor and federal employee stereotypes. They'll soon find their motivated employees will want the unproductive people out of the office.

Reader comments

Wed, May 25, 2011

I don't think many of the people that publish these rules understand how it actually affects contractors on the ground. My wife has been a contract employee for some time now. I am an Army Service member and have actually worked down the hall from her. My wife has come home crying at times because the rules that govern contractors turn into what they cannot do that GS employees can. Many times making them feel like they are not recognized as a part of the team. For example the Services cannot purchase plaques and award contractors for a job well done, they cannot drive a government vehicle, when the commmand gives the 59 min rule (lets employees leave early) GS civilians can go home but not contractors. In some cases, GS employees are very quick to point out what contractors can or cannot do or have. Not to mention contractors can be fired at the drop of a hat and it takes an act of congress to get rid of a GS employee that can't do their job "Wedge" ? It's more than a wedge. It borders on downright discrimination. When you're talking about information they should not have, my wife has a security clearance to handle private information. When someone calls an office to get support and a person doing the job answers the phone who cares if they are a contractor or GS employee as long as they are doing the job. That's my two cents.

Fri, Oct 29, 2010 Debbie

General Lynch has stated that doing the work in house will save money - if you work contracts now is the time to get converted to GS or other DOD pay systems - note even security is now coming in house again.

Tue, Oct 12, 2010

As a contractor in a GOCO where there are about 15% GSers, I've had no issues with the rule at all. We still act like one team and work for the customers in the field. Then again, aroudn here we don't have the kind of BS I've seen from the LM/NGIT folks where a tiny change causes a contract mod and the sales jerks actually control the technical staff. On those contracts, there's a lot of us/them...

Wed, Oct 6, 2010 Liz MD

Years ago, when I was in my support contractor life (I have been on both sides of the fence), we were instructed to always identify ourselves with our company name. I was invited to a big program status meeting on the joint project I was working on. I was one of the first people asked to introduce myself. I gave my name, company, and the government office I was supporting. The other contractors followed suit. Later on, the non-lead services went to the PM and complained loudly and long that they never knew that many of the people they were dealing with were contractors. Even though we all wore badges, many of the contractors slippped in in their shirt pocket, probably not intentional, just to keep it out of the way. But I was persona non grata for having forced them into identifying myself as a contractor and "getting them into trouble." Worse, it turns out that the support contractors were giving direction to the development contractor. I believe in being a team but there is a need to know who you are dealing with and there have to be clear lines of responsibility.

Tue, Oct 5, 2010

I think contractors should be identifed. In the world of acqisition and IT systems there is significant amounts of information that is devulged to contractor support that are imbedded as part of the team that allows inside information as to what/where additional services may be needed which can influence bidding. Many contractors get an award for perpetuating or increasing the amount of support that is needed. Also in some offices there are so few government that are overwhelmed that contractor run the show.

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