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Barrier Busters

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In recent years, federal employees and their industry counterparts have practiced an awkward dance of compulsory partnerships and cautious mistrust. Brought together by necessity, the two sides generally interact at arm's length, signing contracts and sharing resources, but rarely developing friendship.

It's hard to blame them. For years, personal relations between public and private sector employees have been quietly discouraged -- arguably a residual effect of ethical scandals that left some feeling the sides were too cozy.

But a fairly new cooperative group, comprising young professionals from federal and private industry, is looking to institute a new level of discourse and mutual understanding.

The Voyagers Program is an all-volunteer leadership development initiative for "rising stars" in information technology. Started by the nonprofit American Council for Technology and the Industry Advisory Council in Fairfax, Va., it brings together 10 mid-level private sector workers with 10 young feds in the GS-11-13 range, to foster communication and to prepare them as the next generation of workforce leaders.

Participants, who must be nominated by a supervisor and selected by an advisory panel, are paired as "co-pilots." Together, they take part in a series of interactive workshops, off-site events and monthly breakfast meetings where the Voyagers host panel discussions on procurement reform, ethics and management training.

Cal Shintani, the program's 2007 industry chairman and a senior vice president at the Falls Church, Va., technology firm CACI International Inc., says participants get to walk in each other's shoes and gain a greater appreciation for each other's jobs.

"Communication is the key," he says. "Some people in industry have this misperception that people in government are 8-to-5ers. But they work hard and have passion for their jobs. And government needs to understand the misperception about industry. We're here to help. We're not just out to make a sale."

While still in its infancy -- the third class began in April and will end in December -- the idea is not new. Voyagers is an offshoot of the more established Partners Program, a leadership initiative for senior-level executives. In fact, many former Partners lend their knowledge to the Voyagers program, serving as mentors. The relationship can have some unanticipated advantages.

Bright and highly motivated, Ryan Dickover joined Voyagers last year. New to Washington, Dickover, who serves as program manager for e-business at Naval Sea Systems Command, was looking for friends and colleagues who wouldn't question the meaning of every alphabet-soup government acronym. Working toward his doctorate from the online-based Capella University, he was matched with Mark Crouter from Mitre Corp., a nonprofit public interest firm in McLean, Va.

The two shared a surprising connection -- one of Crouter's co-workers, Ken Hoffman, is a professor on the committee to review Dickover's doctoral dissertation. And, while it's unlikely that his brief meeting with Hoffman will sway opinion on his thesis examining mathematical formulas for returns on investment, the experience opened Dickover's eyes to the value of connecting with people outside his comfort zone.

"A great deal of baby boomers see industry folks as the enemy, that they are all about increasing profits and it's our duty, as the shepherds of taxpayers' dollars, to squeeze them," he says. "But they are human beings, not crooks. I got to see that people on the industry side share the same values as us in government."

"Our jobs are very different," adds 2005 Voyager Jonathan Benett, manager of Blackstone Technology Group Inc., a specialist systems integrator and IT staffing firm in Arlington, Va. "But there are inherent traits between both feds and industry. We are each looking to improve the level of public service to taxpayers."

While Voyagers are encouraged to share best practices that potentially could be used at work, program leaders are cognizant of avoiding even the slightest whiff of conflict of interest. Participants are warned not to use the program to attract new clients or sign lucrative contracts.

"We try to avoid any and all cases of impropriety," says Leslie Barry, vice chairwoman of professional development for IAC and one of the architects of the Voyagers program. "This is not a marketing experience. This is a learning experience about how to become a leader."

Occasionally, that learning experience throws participants a curve. Last year, in a Voyagers first, two co-pilots, apparently enamored with how the other half lived, switched jobs. Holli Rice, who worked for the Housing and Urban Development Department, went to work with Deloitte Consulting while Jonathan Alboum, formerly of the Ventera Corp., a McLean, Va., management consulting firm, transitioned to the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, where his new position includes the title of deputy chief information officer.

The decision to switch jobs just "crept up on me," Alboum says. "When I was working with people from the government side, I was exposed to a wide variety of issues that I was never exposed to on the contractor side. It lets you have a broad perspective."

The revolving door of workers passing from government into industry, and vice versa, has gained an unflattering reputation in recent years from critics who view the transitions as little more than a calculated move to increase profits or exploit past relationships. But few Voyagers share that opinion. In fact, roughly half of the current class of government participants formerly worked in industry.

Lisa Akers, director of the General Services Administration's Federal Systems Integration and Management Center and this year's government chairwoman, says spending time in both the private and public sectors can prove useful for young workers still discovering their career paths. "People are more portable now," Akers says. "They come in and out of government. And they gain an understanding that what drives people to the public service is not money, but getting to make a difference."

 
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