Advice to ex-feds: Don't forget where you came from

I ran into Bob Woods at one of the season's holiday parties. It was just a few days after Bob left his 20-plus-year government career, with its capstone as federal telecommunications czar, to become president of the information technology research firm Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va. Freshly arrived from the bar and feeling in an expansive, philosophical holiday mood, I held my drink in my hand and offered one piece of advice: "Bob, be sure that the government is always 'we,' even when you're in industry. The government should never be 'they' to you."

Treasury Department chief information officer Jim Flyzik, who had joined the group, challenged me to write a column on the topic. Here it goes.

The federal IT universe is heavily, and increasingly, populated by ex-feds -- people who've taken buyouts or been the victim of downsizing or just deserted for the greener pastures often available in the private sector. Because I'm now an ex-fed as well, I am hardly in a position to complain or to moralize, although I hope that the Jim Flyziks and the many hundreds of other good folks in the federal IT work force stick it out with the government as long as possible. We need good people in the federal government's IT talent base in an era where the need for IT talent has not diminished but where public-private salary gaps are wider than ever. I feel a real sense of admiration for those manning the forts in the government.

I have always been a corny sort of person. I will say unabashedly that I put people in federal service on a special pedestal. Clearly, people choose government service for any number of reasons. But academic research shows, and my own experience has confirmed, that government is disproportionately filled with people who have a streak of idealism in them.

Whether it be defending the country, making lifesaving scientific research possible, or succoring the forgotten, a lot of what government does involves some larger purpose, and a lot of it wouldn't get done if government wasn't around.

Feds put up with public misunderstanding and disdain, with pay freezes, with bomb threats -- including one deadly bombing -- and more. Investigations by the inspector general and congressional hearings are often the only reward for idealism. I have said that I wish the average American outside the Beltway could have spent a day or two as a fly on the wall in my office or in other federal offices throughout the country. It would have given them a different view of federal employees. They would have seen people seriously engaged in the business of trying to do the right thing for Americans.

So remember your roots. No matter how long I am out of the government, the government will always be 'we' to me, never 'they.' No matter what type of speaking, marketing, consulting or managing we ex-feds do we should pledge to ourselves never to let our private activities occur at the expense of the public good. We should never stoop to bandy about the kind of contemptuous comments made toward government employees that I occasionally heard from private-sector people (admittedly, mostly bid-protest lawyers) while I was in government. Ex-feds should look for ways to locate common ground between the public good and the private good of the firms for which they work. Where interests irreconcilably diverge, ex-feds should look for opportunities to assist in reaching solutions that do justice to both sides.

There are two reasons for ex-feds now working for industry to heed this advice. One is that, from their firms' perspective, it will give them a better understanding of their customer or potential customer. The second is more important. To remember our government honors those still in government. It honors our country. It is the right thing to do.

Kelman was the administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy from 1993 to 1997. He is now Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

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