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Dangerous liaisons: When agencies and contractors get too close

Are ethical breaches a common occurrence in government-industry partnerships? Some readers say that is definitely the case.

They were responding to a blog post by Nick Wakeman, editor of Washington Technology (a sister publication of Federal Computer Week). The topic was a Washington Post article about a “partnership” between an Army official and a CSC employee that took a more personal turn.

Nick praised the Army official, George Raymond (who now works for CSC), for having the courage to speak about the case. “The industry is not full of crooks and cheats, but if you don’t speak you have no influence on how the public perceives you,” Nick wrote.

Some readers read this article as a particularly egregious example of what can go wrong in business relationships. But some see it otherwise.

What do you think?

Here are some excerpts from comments that Nick received from his original post and several follow ups:

* Unfortunately, this kind of behavior goes on all the time. I am deeply hurt for all the women who are working to earn an honest living, trying to hold it down, balancing career, family and aging parents, and not to mention trying to raise "productive citizens with moral character."

* I worry about being the "whistleblower." On contract with one agency, I worked with contractor from another firm. He made sexist and racial comments in a meeting that had a government employee. Everyone else ignored this. I mentioned it [to] the government manager, who ignored my report. Later I learned that the mgr's spouse was a manager for the company that the (bigot) contractor worked for. My contract "ended"; his still going strong.

* The government of today is purging contractors as fast as possible and hiring as many people as they can. Many of the new hires are direct recruits from the contract companies they are dismissing.

* The broad issue is: How intimate can a “partnership” be between government and industry, as long as both have employees who conduct a business relationship as described in this one case? The trend in oversight measures and procurement policy hardly favors more trust between customer and company. And who’s seen a FAR-based contract that reads like a “partnership” agreement in key respects?

* Clearly a breach of ethics at the highest level of this agency. When this stuff happens in Chicago, the U.S. Attorney gets involved and people go to jail.

* Too few private corporations take their ethics policies seriously. When professional relationships don't pass the smell test they should be reviewed and actions taken to reduce the chances of embarrassment to the company or worse.

* Government ethics offices have tended to "over-interpret" ethics laws to the point that they intimidate government personnel -- with the result that they make the government workers feel like criminals when they are not. I would be very careful to concentrate on how well a government contract served the client, rather than attempting to smear people who have spent their career making a contract work. Clear ethical guidance and training is needed on both the government and contractor side, but let's keep the real intent of the ethics laws in mind while offering that guidance.

* A relationship is too close if after-hours communication and activity is the norm rather than an exception. An occasional GROUP luncheon, picnic, happy hour, or dinner event is reasonable. E-mails, phone calls and get-togethers at home, after hours and on personal topics are all warning signs. While they may occur occasionally for good reasons, they should not become routine. If they do, something is wrong. It is always good to remember that if you have a contractor who is really good at what they do, they will have no problem re-competing for their work and they will not need help to do it.

* The key to any relationship in this arena is to remain professional and act in an ethical manner. When the relationship becomes personal, which often they do, both parties have to understand the boundaries and abide by them. Attaining a competitive edge through professional relationships is perfectly acceptable behavior for a contractor and government representative. This type of relationship facilitates good communication and exchange of information that are critical to delivering what the customer needs in the way of contractor support. Common sense should be used by all parties. Unfortunately, common sense is not a common virtue in some of these scenarios.

* This is a ridiculous comment. A company can not ever be too close to a customer. If a relationship becomes "too close" it is up to the buyer/agency to back off. Companies should do all they can to grow a relationship -- that's the way the game is played. And if a company doesn't play that way, they might remain "clean" but also without business.

Posted by John Stein Monroe on Aug 12, 2009 at 12:14 PM


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