Critics assess IT exchange program

New venue encourages public/private job swap

Information Technology Exchange Program final rule

A new public/private exchange that lets information technology officials glimpse life on the other side elicited mixed reactions after the Office of Personnel Management published rules for the congressionally created program earlier this month.

David Marin, a spokesman for Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), said the IT Exchange Program will help fill a gap in the professional experience of future IT leaders. Davis drafted the legislation that created the program.

Through the exchange, "the government benefits from the expertise and perspective of private-sector professionals, and industry gets a feel for how civil servants view the world and approach difficult problems," Marin said.

Some critics, however, say that the program doesn't address federal agencies' need for more IT staffing and training and that it opens the door for corruption. John Threlkeld, lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees, called it "an opportunity for industry to engage in some low-key lobbying and get a lay of the land."

The E-Government Act of 2002 established the exchange program, and OPM issued a final rule this month on how it will work. For example, an agency can detail an IT employee to a company without having to accept a private-sector employee.

Fred Thompson, vice president for management and technology at the Council for Excellence in Government, said the program has strong support from federal chief information officers. The federal government spends billions of dollars on contractor support, he said, and therefore managers should learn the intricacies of private industry.

"Understanding them, what motivates them and how they can be most effective is the way you get results," Thompson said.

Industry groups also like the program. Ellen Glover, the Industry Advisory Council's new chairwoman, said an exchange is good for helping private-sector managers understand how federal agencies manage IT. More than teaching new skills, she said, the program will provide insight into the public sector's complex dynamics.

For an industry person working government, she added, "it will be a real eye opener" to experience oversight pressures from lawmakers, congressional auditors and inspectors general.

John Palguta, vice president for policy and research at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, said that the IT field evolves quickly and that federal agencies must provide continual training and development for employees. The exchange program will let federal agencies "tap into some of the state-of-the art developments in the private sector," Palguta said.

However, some critics fear that under the guise of strengthening understanding, industry contractors might use the program to gather information to serve their companies in future deals, Palguta said.

For some agencies, the toughest part may be letting go of their best and brightest IT managers for a temporary stint in the private sector.

"It's a sacrifice," Thompson said. "But if it's done intelligently, and they come back better able to do their jobs, it's worth the investment."

Michael is a Chicago-based freelancer.


Try out a different job

The Office of Personnel Management has set the following rules for a congressionally sanctioned program to expand the professional experiences of information technology officials.

What: IT Exchange Program.

Who: Exceptional federal employees at the GS-11 level or higher and private-sector IT managers.

When: The program starts Sept. 14. Agency officials must develop specific plans before beginning an exchange.

How long: The program lasts between three months and one year and may be extended in three-month increments for a second year.

Why: The intent is to enhance IT management skills and competencies.

— Sara Michael


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