Kelman: Can we keep the kids?

The government is beginning to refresh its ranks at a difficult time for federal workers.

I recently had a chance to meet with frontline contracting staff members involved in buying information technology. Of the 30 or so people present, about five were new hires, all were in their 20s and all had less than three years of government experience. They had been recruited through the federal government’s Outstanding Scholars program, which means they had good college grades.

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It’s good that many contracting shops are beginning to refresh their ranks. The young people in the scholars program are part of the government’s effort to develop a new generation of contracting professionals to serve agency missions.

Let me start with the good news. Based on my brief exposure to them, these young people are spectacular. They have degrees in computer science, marketing, communications and general business. They have the kind of training that the next generation of contracting people needs.

Now for the bad news. I worry that in the current contracting environment, it will be difficult to retain these young employees in public service. Listening to them and to the older contracting staff members in a meeting, I heard a torrent of complaints about the workplace atmosphere and the unproductive workload created by agency inspectors general. The young people said they felt frustrated by their sense that people automatically side with an IG and assume that IGs are correct in their criticisms. The new hires said they felt their responses to IGs received scant attention and that they had little chance to defend themselves. They were frustrated that headquarters responded even to minor IG criticisms by piling on new paperwork requirements, which the young people said consumed an inordinate amount of their time without producing any real benefits.

I made a pitch to those young feds about using their skills to suggest better business solutions to customers. One of them replied,“Dr. Kelman, there’s nothing I’d like to do more. But I’m so preoccupied with the paperwork, I just don’t have time.”

Frankly, I am scared that, having recruited those young people, the government will lose them rapidly. Not one of them described a workplace environment that was attractive to work in.

What are the lessons here? First, the lack of time to attend to much besides paperwork partly reflects the shortage of contracting employees. I recently had dinner with a senior career contracting executive who was bemoaning the fact that,with staff shortages, many of the most professionally rewarding — and, I might add, most important — elements of a contracting professional’s job get short shrift these days.Negotiating with contractors is an example.

Second, politicians and the media tend to put white hats on IGs, portraying them as the heroes. My own view is that IGs wear gray hats. IGs perform useful work, but they also have a point of view about how to manage government contracting that is not necessarily in the taxpayers’ interest. And their one-sided reports often demoralize civil servants.

Rep.Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the new chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has been one of the few political leaders to argue publicly that we need more contracting professionals. But he also has joined the IG hallelujah chorus. If Waxman can push the first opinion and nuance the second, maybe we can keep some of those great young people in public service.

Kelman is professor of public management at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. He can be reached at steve_kelman@harvard.edu.

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