A contractor calls for hiring more techies in-house

Steve Kelman argues that Ad Hoc CEO Greg Gershman is onto something important.

Shutterstock image ID: 569172169 By Zenzen

Not surprisingly, contractors tend to want the government to hire contractors to do tech work. Thus it is a little bit of a man bites dog story to see a contractor urge the government to hire more in-house people to tackled IT.

The man biting a dog here is Greg Gershman, founder and CEO of the non-traditional IT vendor Ad Hoc. Gershman’s firm grew out of the Healthcare.gov website fiasco a number of years

ago, which became a defining event for non-traditional contractors. Ad Hoc has grown to 350 employees and has a significant presence at the VA and CMS. Now Gershman has written a piece called Agencies must change to support the in-house tech talent they need.

There are several reasons to rejigger the balance between contractor and in-house talent, which has been for many years overwhelmingly skewed towards contractors. Gershman’s piece emphasizes a role government techies should play. “The Biden administration has shown its commitment to creating a modern government by bringing talented technologists into senior positions,” he writes. “To execute on that vision, the administration will need thousands of skilled technologists in the federal service to do the preliminary work to explore problems, help evaluate vendors, and lead the day-to-day operations of contracting teams.” 

I would add that there should be some in-house technologists actually working as developers. In-house talent can be less expensive, often much less expensive, than contractors. And in-house staff also may have more commitment to the mission than many contractor staff, meaning they are good competition to contractors. Few if any agencies would favor bringing most tech work in-house, the way it occurred in days of yore in places like the Social Security Administration. But the balance in government is way out of whack compared with large private companies, which employ lots more tech talent.

Most of Gershman’s piece discusses what the government should do to make government jobs attractive for technologists. These talented individuals “look for environments that value them, give them challenging opportunities, help them grow their skills, and provide a path to advance their careers,” he writes. This involves mentorship programs and training.

Government also is missing a support structure for technologists. “While most agencies have some kind of career path for technology professionals, almost all are hired under the generic title of ‘IT Specialist,’” Gershman notes. “In many agencies, there’s little specialization around different disciplines like product management, user experience design, or front-end development.”

Finally, he argues that “ the government must embrace remote work. Limiting employees to a geographic area creates direct competition with local technology companies, which is a losing battle. Enabling remote work will open up government jobs to a much larger group of people, and will increase the government’s ability to compete for better talent. The COVID-19 pandemic should have dashed any remaining idea that federal employees must be on site. The government can operate remotely, and it will have to if it wants to compete for the technical talent it needs.”

As I read Gershman’s piece, I thought about its implications beyond attracting new technologists. The sad fact is the government generally does a terrible job at people management. Compared with the contracting community, the government’s HR experts are sort of a sad bunch, more paper pushers and no-sayers than business advisors. Even the moniker for them, “personnelist,” is an antiquated phrase with the pizazz of a wet blanket. The civil service culture values policy skills much more than management skills. How many organizations spend time creating and cultivating mentorships, career paths, or specializations involving disciplinary communities of practice?

Thanks Greg Gershman, for raising the issue of in-house tech talent. Really addressing it will require changes that are going to be a stretch.

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