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

Steve Kelman looks at what happens when long-time civil servants transition from government to industry.

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!

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