By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

Ex-feds encourage stint in government

I had dinner last night in Washington with two retired career federal managers who now work for an information technology firm. (By the way, it was really cold in Washington last night -- my wife had been in DC on Wednesday, and told me Thursday morning when I was leaving Boston not to bother to take my winter jacket. That advice turned out to be a mistake!) During dinner, where we were, among other topics, talking about the difficulties of attracting young people to public service in government, one of them said to me: "Don't tell my bosses this, but I have actually urged a number of our brightest young employees to leave the company for a few years and work for the government as civil servants. I say to them that they should spend time directly serving their country and experience the feeling of actually working inside government." He had actually succeeded in persuading some of his company's young talent to do just that, with salary sacrifices. If they come back to the company in a few years, which he suspects most will, he believes they will have gained a perspective that will better help them serve their government customers.

The two ex-feds at dinner also mentioned that their firm's culture was that whenever there was a conflict between serving the government customer and the firm's short-term interest, the choice should always be to serve the customer, because that was in the firm's long-term interest.

Both of those remarks shed light on the nature of the government-industry relationship in IT and also on debates about the revolving door.

Neither remark suggests that the government doesn't need prudently to defend its interests in a contractual relationship. First of all, not all firms are like the one these ex-feds described, and if bad actors can get away with profiting from mistreating the government, it will be harder for the good actors to thrive. Second, important features of the procurement system -- particularly the emphasis on using past performance in contract award that came about during the procurement reforms of the l990's -- are necessary to create a world where the long-term interest of a firm is to serve its customers.

But those remarks do suggest a different take on the government-industry relationship than the one portraying all contractors as some sort of career criminals who need to be watched like one would oversee prisoners making license plates in a penitentiary. And they suggest a more nuanced take on debates about the revolving door, because the infusion of ex-feds into these firms is, I believe, an important force creating the culture those two ex-feds described.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Apr 06, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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