Anonymous: Why so few skilled managers?

Address the brain drain, and don’t penalize the best people in government for staying

Editor’s note:  Federal Computer Week generally requires commentary pieces to have a byline. However, in this case, we agreed to make an exception and publish this article anonymously at the writer’s request because we think it addresses a topic worth debating.

As a former government employee, I find it interesting to hear Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, complain about the level of outsourcing in programs such as the Homeland Security Department’s SBInet program.

Waxman’s major complaint is that the government is outsourcing much of the work of managing the program to companies such as Acquisition Solutions and Booz Allen Hamilton. The work must be outsourced because the government cannot retain or attract a sufficient number of skilled acquisitions, program management and information technology employees to adequately staff programs with its own people.

And the primary reason the government can’t retain or attract those employees is because Congress has not dealt with the government’s noncompetitive wages for employees in critical skill areas such as acquisition, program management and IT. For years people have decried the brain drain in those areas. The lack of skilled senior managers is arguably the primary reason that the government’s major programs go astray. Yet it is easier for Congress to fund a $1 billion budget overrun on a program than to pay a great manager $1 million a year to keep it on track.

What does the private sector pay for a chief financial officer, chief information officer, chief operations officer, general manager or president of a $1 billion enterprise? A salary at the low end of the scale might be $300,000, but people in those jobs usually also receive stock and bonuses that can bring their total annual compensation to more than $1 million.

Contrast that with the federal government, which pays the director of the 2010 census — a $12 billion-plus program — an annual salary of $168,000. The question Waxman should ask next is how many of the contract employees working on SBInet are paid more than the government’s SBInet program manager?

There is no mistaking that the government is paying market rates for more than 80 percent of its workforce in important skill areas. The members of that workforce are called contractors.

The real shame is that a large number of the people who leave government come back to work on programs such as SBInet, except this time they work as private-sector employees. The government can pay market rates for them, but not for its own employees.

Congress should fix that situation by creating a Senior Performance Service for employees with critical skills. Let those employees be paid a market rate for their skills based on commonly available industry salary benchmarks. Create a bonus structure overseen by a congressional committee and base it on meeting tangible performance goals. As in the private sector, make those employees’ continued employment contingent on continued performance. A condition of their employment should be termination with two weeks’ notice at their manager’s discretion, just as though they were contract employees.

Members of Waxman’s committee are correct to complain that many of the skilled employees necessary for managing government programs can be found only in the private sector. The good news is that they are part of the only institution that can solve the problem.

The author is a former government executive who asked to remain anonymous.

FCW in Print

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


  • FCW @ 30 GPS

    FCW @ 30

    Since 1986, 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.

  • Shutterstock image.

    Merged IT modernization bill punts on funding

    A House panel approved a new IT modernization bill that appears poised to pass, but key funding questions are left for appropriators.

  • General Frost

    Army wants cyber capability everywhere

    The Army's cyber director said cyber, electronic warfare and information operations must be integrated into warfighters' doctrine and training.

  • Rising Star 2013

    Meet the 2016 Rising Stars

    FCW honors 30 early-career leaders in federal IT.

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