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By Steve Kelman

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The big shift: When civil servants move to the other side

government industry dialog

What happens when long-time civil servants transition from government to industry?

At the end of my recent conversation with Dee Lee about improving contract management, I raised a different topic. After being a civil servant for over 30 years, Dee left government in 2008 for industry.

I have long been interested in what happens to longtime civil servants when they go to work for the private sector. Fairly often, people who had been doggedly taxpayer-oriented while civil servants -- even to the point of being, perhaps rightfully, criticized by industry as "anti-industry" -- undergo a transformation when they go to work for a contractor. Sometimes, the conversion is so extreme that it transforms erstwhile watchdogs into industry lapdogs. I have never liked such behavior, and I have always counseled government folks going into industry, "Continue to refer to the government as 'we.'"

My own view is that it is fair to ask longtime civil servants to retain their commitment to the public interest even after they leave government. At the same time, it would be foolish if ex-civil servants remained frozen in time from their government days. We should expect, and indeed hope, that they will continue to learn new things and grow based on exposure to working in industry. Such growth, combined with an ongoing commitment to the public interest even after leaving government, can combine to produce the best of both worlds in a seasoned executive helping government from the outside.

The good news is that there wasn't much evidence of watchdog-to-lapdog shift for Dee. Looking at her comments on how to improve post-award contract management, they really centered around the government's -- and taxpayers' -- interest in good mission performance. She was upset when the government focused on bureaucratic process requirements that did not contribute to performance.

I asked Dee what she had learned from being in industry that she didn't understand well enough while still in government. Her answer centered on her own insufficient understanding of how much it created problems for industry when the government doesn't come close to sticking to a schedule for awarding or starting work on a contract.

In government, she noted, if there were long delays, agency folks just waited. In industry, if there's a delay and no other work for a contractor employee to do, they are laid off waiting for the contract to be awarded and started. Aside from the personal disruption this causes employees, it imposes costs on contractors that get passed on to government. It also creates problems for good performance, so delay is in neither the government's nor the contractor's interests. When I listened to Dee talking about this problem, it seemed like she wished she had been aware enough of this while she was in government so she could have changed the government's behavior at the time.

Talking about what industry people didn't understand about government folks, Dee noted that they were too apt to attribute actions with which they disagreed to government incompetence. Dee told me that, in industry, she frequently had to explain that there were typically understandable reasons for government behavior industry didn't like. She cited an example of a government action to definitize a contract prior to completion of negotiations. Her industry colleagues thought this was simply irrational, but in reality it was driven by a performance metric discouraging long delays on large-dollar-value undefinitized actions. In general, she noted that in government, "people have so little time and so little support that it shouldn't be surprising mistakes get made. We don't give them enough time to think."

The only area where I was somewhat uneasy about Dee's evolution was in her opinion of how the government uses past performance. Twice in different parts of our conversation, she expressed the view that the government (sometimes) uses the threat of a bad past performance evaluation unfairly as a Sword of Damocles -- holding it over a contractor to pressure them to quickly accept the government's position, since failure to do so could translate into a "difficult to deal with" past performance rating.

In saying this, she was repeating a refrain one frequently hears from industry folks. My own view, from the taxpayer perspective Dee takes, is to be mildly skeptical of this argument. I am sure there are indeed some cases where the government does unfairly lean on contractors. But I like the idea of the government setting high performance demands on contractors, and am as much if not more worried about situations where the government doesn't press a contractor enough.

For the record, Dee said that lack of pressure used to often be true -- she recalled situations from her time at NASA where a government program manager didn't want to ding a contractor's award fee out of fear it would reflect badly on the program manager himself. However, she said she believes this practice dissipated over the years after various reports and oversight committees noted high ratings on some less-than-successful programs.

My conclusion about Dee's path since she left the government: You can take Dee Lee out of the government, but you can't take the government out of Dee Lee. In my view, that's as it should be.

Comments on Dee's path (or your own) from former feds now in industry, and from current feds as well, are welcomed!

Posted by Steve Kelman on Feb 16, 2016 at 7:32 AM

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Reader comments

Fri, Apr 15, 2016 Bob Woods

Good article, Steve. Where you stand depends on where you sit. The most precious commodity when government and industry interact is trust. Doing the right thing is hard on both sides and taking advantage of the weakness of your business partner does not lead to good things for either party. I can tell you that I have had instances where I have observed both sides doing things they shouldn't. The government side does bully at times and the industry side does game the process for profit sometimes. As personal advice it works best when each party works to solve the problems at hand and work for the public at large. Much of the good work done through associations is a result of creating a safe zone to discuss the problem the government needs to solve and to discuss the state of the industry and the likely outcome of alternative solutions. Government gets the best feedback when it communicates honestly and continuously. Admitting that you don't know is a trait we should reward for government professionals. Likewise we in industry need to admit it when we don't understand the issues and admit we may not be the best place to solve the problem. I have seldom heard us say that government should do something themselves. Obviously there are situations where the private sector is not the best alternative. Trust me.

Thu, Mar 10, 2016

Acquisition reform is in order. Needs to be simplified and streamlined. Govt. wastes a lot of time and resources procuring services they don't even understand. These days the bar for receiving is set so low that you can be marginally qualified but get an award if you are the lowest price. Would you risk your life going to a doctor who was marginally qualified and the lowest priced? That's what the VA is doing. Would you risk getting killed in a house firs, if the Fireman who came to your rescue were trained by an LPTA vendor? Of course not! The contracting officers would rather put the national and personal security at risk than procure the best services to serve the citizens well. Is this insane or what?

Fri, Mar 4, 2016

You're right. A persons character is a persons character and if they were doing the right thing while in government, they're trying to do the right thing if they're in industry. There's a lot of abuse by less than honorable people which hurts the rest of us who want to do good, no matter where the paycheck comes from. After tilting at this windmill for 20+ years, I've realized change is only going to come from a rewrite of the FAR and a true "team Gov/Contractor" approach to requirements. It's completely ridiculous and obscene that the Gov and contractors can't get into a room with each other and come up with a good solution to the problem. This means helping with the requirements, "knowing what to ask for" is key. Right now the Government gets what it asks for. The problem is that 90% of the requirements statements are ridiculous.

I remember years ago being able to write a statement of objectives. Then the contractor would come back with a solution that I had not thought of. Now, especially at the VA, a simple requirement takes at least 40-50 pages to describe and the CYA factor (those additional requirements) are through the roof.

The requirements often contain the actual "partial solution" and the "partial solution" they want is usually wrong. So you're handcuffed by the "partial solution" and can't go outside that box and have to try and make it work. An example would be: We want a new apartment building - but, build it out of used houseboats - but make sure it's up to code.

In order to win that contract, you have to agree to do it "the VA way" which leads to subpar results.

This has happened at the VA in the last 8 years with reorganizations and centralization of the contracting authority where they CO's are not concerned or, to be fair, at least tied closely to the mission of that facility or organization.

Again the bottom line is that those of us, no matter who we serve, want the right thing to be done.

Thu, Mar 3, 2016

Your commenters and comments notwithstanding, decades in industry suggest that more than 2/3 of GS15s and above who move to industry are not successful in their companies. They don't stay very long or move up much of the time. Most do not develop much business sense. Their contacts can go stale and their value to the private sector diminishes quickly

Tue, Mar 1, 2016 John Neal

Sometimes it seems there is a solid wall between the contracting office and industry. The RFP is thrown over the wall and the proposal is thrown back. No one understands what happens on the other side of the wall or how their actions can help or hinder the other side. Industry reacts to uncertainty and perceived risks by raising costs. Government responds to risk by heaping on requirements and clauses that may or may not ensure better services. We need some effort to see around the wall to understand how all members of the acquisition team function and what they need to be successful.

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