By Steve Kelman

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Contractors doing contracting

At breakfast one morning at the acquisition research conference at the Naval Postgraduate School, I got asked by some senior DOD contracting officials what I thought about the growing use of contractors doing contracting work (that is, involved in awarding and managing contracts held by others), work that traditionally has been done by government employees.

I said the trend disturbed me, as the use of contractors came closer and closer to the line of decision-making about contract award and management. Sometimes, I feared, contractors did all the work, presented a "recommendation," and basically the action of civil servants was just to approve the recommendation. The more a situation was like that, the more I worried. I mentioned an analogy to my view of ethical constraints while I was in government -- if the line is at a certain place, you don't want to be right at the line, you want to be a large distance on the proper side of it.

What was more interesting than my opinion was their reaction. All three agreed they were worried by current trends, as contractors were in some places (though they said this was still not widespread in DOD) coming close to making decisions.

There are of course some times when the government has a brief need for some highly specialized knowledge that involves source selection, where it makes sense to bring in outsiders (although, in my view, this should generally be a non-profit such as a federally funded research and development corporation). Also, it makes sense to hire contractors for agencies such as FEMA that face surge demand for their services, rather than having excess in-house staff waiting around for an emergency.

One of the government people at breakfast noted that, even today, some forces in DOD argue that, with money tight, DOD needs to reduce "overhead" personnel, such as those in acquisition.

Readers, what are your experiences with this phenomenon of using contractors for contracting work? Where should we be going on this?

Posted by Steve Kelman on May 22, 2007 at 12:08 PM


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