CXO Lessons Learned: A new workforce paradigm
The seamless mixing of feds and contractors complicates workforce management
- By Richard W. Walker
- May 16, 2008
Contractor employees abound in government workplaces. Often the only obvious difference between them and federal workers is the color of a security badge. But that appearance of uniformity belies the increasingly complex reality of managing a multisector workforce, experts say.
The government’s workforce — often a mixture of federal workers and private-sector contract employees working side by side — is a potential minefield, as the Army learned recently. In a March report, Government Accountability Office auditors identified what they termed a blurry line between government employees and contractors working for the Army, and they advised the Army to take steps to more clearly differentiate its contractor employees.
The appearance of a homogeneous workforce in government is “a good thing, in the sense that you want to create environments that are somewhat seamless,” said Christopher Mihm, director of strategic issues at GAO. “On the other hand, there are risks associated with that, and it gets back to the blurry line. You forget who…has a fiduciary responsibility to their stakeholders — the contractor — versus those who take an oath of office — as federal employees do — for the greater common good.”
Ron Flom, associate director of management services, chief human capital officer and chief acquisition officer at the Office of Personnel Management, said there should never be a blurry line between employees and contractors. “I want to make sure that tasks are clearly spelled out so there’s no reason” for any confusion about what is inherently governmental work and what isn’t, he said. Under federal rules, contractors are prohibited from doing work that is inherently governmental.
It’s possible to manage multisector employees as one workforce, but managers have to understand the intrinsic differences among the sectors, Mihm said. The challenge is putting the various sectors into a “public-management Cuisinart in a creative way” to reach desired outcomes, he said. “You want to know the respective strengths and limitations that each of the various sectors brings. You want to manage in such a way that you’re integrating and leveraging the strengths and minimizing the weaknesses.”
At NASA, where fewer than a third of the 58,000 employees are full-time federal workers, agency officials say they are comfortable with managing a multisector workforce.
“NASA has a history of civil servants and contractors working side by side, so this is par for the course for us,” said Toni Dawsey, NASA’s assistant administrator for human capital management. “When you walk into a center or any building at NASA, it’s hard to know who’s a contractor and who isn’t. But I would say it’s a pretty fluid relationship and doesn’t pose any problems for us.”
But there are also hurdles ahead as NASA realigns its workforce to support development of a new space shuttle, the Constellation, for launch in 2012. Last year, the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA), a congressionally chartered organization that analyzes the workings of government, issued a report on NASA’s multisector workforce. That report recommends that the agency adopt a stronger workforce management strategy by integrating acquisition planning and workforce planning at the top executive levels.
Acting on that recommendation, NASA has constructed a formal workforce governance structure that includes a team of human resources, acquisition and financial officials; budget analysts; transition managers; and other major players from NASA’s 10 centers. The governance structure pulls key people together to monitor the workforce, Dawsey said.
However, that governance structure excludes contractors. Under the terms of NASA’s performance-based contracts, NASA officials are prevented from de veloping detailed strategic plans for the contractor workforce, such as determining skill sets and competencies required for projects.
“For the civil service, we plan competency levels on projects…to help us understand who to hire and who not to hire over the next several years,” Dawsey said. “We can’t do that by competencies for contractors. We don’t decide their competencies. We buy the contract, and they decide who and how many they’re going to put [on a project].”
Indeed, as the government relies more on the expertise of contractor employees, agencies need to better align workforce planning with acquisition planning to meet their goals, said Alethea Long-Green, director of human capital studies at NAPA and adjunct professor of public policy at George Mason University.
At U.S. intelligence agencies, officials decided two years ago to conduct an inventory of contract employees and use the results to build an effective workforce and ensure that contractors are serving in the right roles. That inventory has become a critical tool for managing their multisector workforce.
“We feel we can’t just treat [contract employees] as an afterthought and spend all of our time focusing on our civilian and military personnel,” said Andrew Richardson, senior human capital policy adviser at the Office of the Intelligence Community. “We’re all one workforce, we’re all pulling in the same direction, and we want to make sure our contract personnel are integrated into our workforce and that the roles they are playing are the appropriate roles.”
Although onsite contractor employees and federal workers might be virtually indistinguishable at the intelligence agencies, “within our offices, we certainly know who the contract personnel are and what different roles they’re doing,” Richardson said. “Internally, it’s not an issue.”
“Contract personnel work according to a contract,” he added. “It’s very clear what they’re supposed to be doing and what kind of services they’re supposed to be providing. They don’t provide services outside the scope of their contract.”
The challenges of managing a multisector workforce have elevated the role of federal acquisition and contract specialists. “It’s not a back-office function anymore,” Mihm said. “It’s central to how agencies do their mission and deliver value for taxpayers. We have to make sure that we have in place people with the knowledge and skills to manage and oversee contractors and contract relationships.”
John Palguta, vice president of the Partnership for Public Service, agreed. “When you have an increasing reliance on a contract workforce, you need to have people who are very good at managing that relationship,” he said. “You have to have great relationships to make sure that the desired end results are being achieved.”