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.

chart 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.

FCW in Print

In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

Featured

  • Anne Rung -- Commerce Department Photo

    Exit interview with Anne Rung

    The government's departing top acquisition official said she leaves behind a solid foundation on which to build more effective and efficient federal IT.

  • Charles Phalen

    Administration appoints first head of NBIB

    The National Background Investigations Bureau announced the appointment of its first director as the agency prepares to take over processing government background checks.

  • Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.)

    Senator: Rigid hiring process pushes millennials from federal work

    Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) said agencies are missing out on younger workers because of the government's rigidity, particularly its protracted hiring process.

  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1987, FCW has covered it all -- the major contracts, the disruptive technologies, the picayune scandals and the many, many people who make federal IT function. Here's a look back at six of the most significant stories.

  • Shutterstock image.

    A 'minibus' appropriations package could be in the cards

    A short-term funding bill is expected by Sept. 30 to keep the federal government operating through early December, but after that the options get more complicated.

  • Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaks at the TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco

    DOD launches new tech hub in Austin

    The DOD is opening a new Defense Innovation Unit Experimental office in Austin, Texas, while Congress debates legislation that could defund DIUx.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group