Kelman: Let’s promote the IT Exchange

Program can improve trust between feds and industry and foster more information sharing

The Office of Personnel Management issued regulations for a new Information Technology Exchange Program at a propitious time. There are more reasons now than ever to get this program off the ground.

Authorized by the E-Government Act of 2002, the program allows government IT employees at the GS-11 level or higher to work temporarily in industry and allows industry people to become short-term government employees. In both cases, the participants work for three months to one year and possibly as long as two years. Generally, the organization that lets one of its employees participate pays that employee’s salary.

The impetus for the program emerged during a retreat for faculty of Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government at which we discussed a growing tendency of our students, like most young people, to expect to have many different jobs during their working lives. They don’t expect to work for a lifetime in only one organization.

It is clear that few of our students are willing to spend their entire careers in federal civil service, because it pays relatively low salaries for highly trained people. Most students, however, would be interested in doing a stint of government service.

But federal government officials are stuck in the mind-set of a previous time when people took a job and stayed in it for decades.

We thought a program that gives industry employees a chance to work a stint as civil servants was a way the federal government could get needed talent and could be an alternative model for public service.

With help from Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and Accenture, we saw our idea realized in the exchange provisions of the E-Government Act.

Since 2002, however, a new reason to embrace the IT Exchange has emerged. Some politicians, interest group representatives and journalists are peddling the view that agencies and vendors need to stay at arm’s length from each other, even after a contract award. But the climate of distrust that some people are creating is wrong. Strong evidence from business-to-business relationships in the private sector suggests that trust promotes information sharing, which, in turn, promotes success.

When people look at one another suspiciously across organizational boundaries, we create problems like the government’s failure to “connect the dots” before the 2001 terrorist attacks. We want to reaffirm a model of government/vendor relationships that protects government interests but recognizes industry as a partner, not an enemy. For those reasons, we need to promote the IT Exchange Program now more than ever.

Kelman is a 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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