DOD drives deeper wedge between feds and contractors

Defense contractors worry about maintaining the delicate balance of the federal workforce

Federal employees probably wouldn't be surprised to see a contractor arrive at the office in an orange jumpsuit. Nor would a contractor blink if feds were to show up in Tommy Bahama shirts from the new Tropical Temptation collection.

The outfits would match the image that each holds of the other: Contractors are greedy enough to shoot their mother for a dollar, and feds treat work like a day at the beach.

As funny as those old stereotypes might sound, they reflect the often-bitter cultural divide between contractors and feds that, depending on whom you ask, is about to get wider.

Under a Defense Department rule that went into effect in September, contractor employees are required to identify themselves as such in all forms of communications, whether in person, on the phone or in e-mail messages.

At a time when contractors outnumber feds in some offices, the rule is intended to ensure that DOD managers do not inadvertently involve contractors in sensitive work that should be set aside for feds. The rule, in short, will show who’s on which side.


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But some contractors fear that the rule could undermine the teamwork that's essential in a blended workforce, in which feds and contractors must work side by side on a daily basis. “How do you maintain unity of community when segregation is forced?” a reader named Skully asked in a comment posted at FCW.com.

It’s a tough question, especially given the existing distrust between feds and contractors in many government offices.

Bob Woods, a retired federal official and now president of Topside Consulting, said the rule only exacerbates the situation. Worse yet, it’s not even necessary, because feds know who the contractors are. If not, they’re not being diligent, he said. “The rule creates an awkward situation for everybody,” he said.

Another reader commenting on the story pointed out that the pink badges contractors wear are already pretty conspicuous. The lack of identification is not the problem — it is the “cries of ‘unclean!’ when the contractors pass through federal workspace that is distracting.”

As some contractors see it, DOD might just as well post a scarlet letter on their foreheads, marking them as people whose loyalties are not to the customer or the mission but to the bottom line.

But as touchy as the issue might be, contract employees know who is writing their checks.

“Some people would be very offended by that statement,” but it’s true, said Peter Tuttle, a former Army contracting officer and now senior procurement policy analyst at Distributed Solutions. He also said federal employees need that “healthy bit of skepticism.”

The rule isn’t bad, said Kevin Carroll, retired program executive officer of DOD’s Enterprise Information Systems office and now president of the Kevin Carroll Group, a consulting company. It will let other contractors and officials know whom they’re talking to.

The identity question is especially a problem outside federal offices — where badges are not required —in e-mail, and on the phone.

The lack of identification by contractors “clouds the water on a daily basis and causes delays and delivery of substandard technology and products to the DOD,” a federal employee wrote, adding: “Anyone not seeing this as a problem with the current procurement system is a victim of ‘.mil’ envy.”

There are ways to curtail segregation.

When Carroll worked in government, he included contractors in all of his office’s work and even invited them to social events. Overall, he tried to make them teammates. Over time, contractors usually became more loyal to the office than their companies, he said.

“It is just a matter of leadership and inclusion, with a careful eye on preventing conflicts within the workplace,” Carroll said.

Likewise, the mutual stereotypes need not be a problem.

Many people are good workers, and managers need to attend first to the motivated people in the office, Woods said. Then managers should deal separately with the select few who match the contractor and federal employee stereotypes. They'll soon find their motivated employees will want the unproductive people out of the office.

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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