Contractors vs. staff: You do the math

The latest phase of the debate about the role of contractors in government shows that even the obvious is less obvious than it seems

Whether the pendulum is swinging toward outsourcing, circa 2001, or insourcing, as it is now, any measurable change in motion is sure to stir up a debate about the appropriate role of contractors in government.

The debate is often framed in terms of determining which jobs are inherently governmental. That’s why a recent Washington Post article about the essential role of contractors in the intelligence community caused such commotion. Here, if nowhere else, the line between government and contractor responsibilities ought to be clearly drawn.

Alas, the ensuing debate showed that even intelligence work leaves room for debate. Additionally, the pendulum’s present direction — toward replacing contractor positions with staff employees — is complicated by growing concerns about the federal deficit. By insourcing jobs, are federal agencies saving money or simply adding more red ink?

Our coverage of the controversy generated a lot of debate at Here is a small sampling of the comments we received, edited for length, style and clarity.

Pay vs. Profit
I know of contract positions where the company is paid more than $300,000 per year — far more than any government employee makes. But the contract employee only gets perhaps $60,000, and the company pockets the rest in profits. The important point is how much the government pays for the position, not how much the incumbent takes home.
— David

Pay vs. Responsibility
The problem with the government pay system is that it treats all employees, regardless of skill set or responsibilities, as the same in terms of pay. Let's be honest, an administrative assistant generally has fewer responsibilities than a senior manager who he or she supports or reports to. Yet a GS-15 makes the same regardless of position, title, responsibilities or accountability. The government needs to get serious about matching salaries to skill sets and rewarding performers and sanctioning poor performers.
— Anonymous

No Duh
Basic rules of contracting from the private sector: You hire a subcontractor when (a) you don't have the knowledge or the skill in-house to do a job yourself; or (b) you don't have the time, in the form of man-hours, to do it yourself. If you don't have the skill and you need that skill for a limited amount of time and for a unique or singular project, you hire a contractor. If you are going to be handling the same type of work for more than six months and/or there appears to be a lot of repeat business that obviously justifies a full-time employee’s position, then you had better hire someone to do that job.
— Anonymous

Contractors are necessary due to how difficult it is to hire and fire government employees. Contractors are perfect for filling needs because you can eliminate them when the need is gone. Signing on a government contractor is like a lifelong contract. If the government would make it easier to hire and fire without making it the longest, most drawn out political process in the world, then the need for contractors wouldn't be there.
— Anonymous


  • Cybersecurity
    Shutterstock photo id 669226093 By Gorodenkoff

    The disinformation game

    The federal government is poised to bring new tools and strategies to bear in the fight against foreign-backed online disinformation campaigns, but how and when they choose to act could have ramifications on the U.S. political ecosystem.

    sensor network (agsandrew/

    Are agencies really ready for EIS?

    The telecom contract has the potential to reinvent IT infrastructure, but finding the bandwidth to take full advantage could prove difficult.

  • People
    Dave Powner, GAO

    Dave Powner audits the state of federal IT

    The GAO director of information technology issues is leaving government after 16 years. On his way out the door, Dave Powner details how far govtech has come in the past two decades and flags the most critical issues he sees facing federal IT leaders.

Stay Connected

FCW Update

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.