Management Matters Management MattersManagement Matters
Practical advice for federal leaders on managing people, processes and projects.

The Outsiders

ARCHIVES

In July, The Washington Post ran a three-part series headlined "Top Secret America," which depicted an intelligence contractor workforce so vast and unmanageable that not even the secretary of Defense could say how many nongovernmental employees were in his office. For anyone who has worked in the intelligence community for any length of time, this information was neither surprising nor especially revealing.

Indeed, the Post's breathless coverage recalled that ironic scene in Casablanca when Capt. Renault walks into Rick's bar and casino and declares, "I'm shocked, SHOCKED to find that gambling is going on in here!"

This publication and several others have devoted hundreds of pages over the years to the story of outsourcing intelligence. They have chronicled the waste, fraud and abuse committed by the "body shops" that supply intelligence agencies with the private workers they need to perform their missions. Books have been written that catalog the deficiencies that attend this strategy, as have dozens of government audits. What made the Post's series so surprising wasn't that it mischaracterized the downsides of intelligence contracting -- it got those right -- but that it presented this trend as previously unrecognized.

Contract workers began showing up on sensitive missions years before the Sept. 11 attacks. In the 1990s, ex-soldiers found themselves redeploying with their comrades-in-arms, but this time the contract workers were wearing corporate logos on their shirts. The 2001 terrorist attacks came mostly as a surprise to an intelligence workforce that had been pruned in the fallout of the Cold War. Seasoned employees had retired, in search of more lucrative private pastures. When the agencies ramped up for the war on terror, they hired back their old staff on contracts.

Although we know this narrative well, no one defends the outcome. There are good reasons to want more government employees doing government jobs. Chief among them are greater accountability and cost control. But few people have much to offer in the way of alternatives that would right the balance. In large part, that's because the nature of the intelligence workforce -- and the intelligence employee -- has changed.

More than half the current workforce joined after September 2001. For them, committing to a career at a single agency, or even in a single profession, is anathema. If they make a career of intelligence, most will do it from the corporate side, where they'll enjoy more professional freedom and be able to engage the wanderlust that defines the 21st century worker.

So here's an idea. Instead of trying to hang on to an entire workforce, invest more time and energy in training those who stay how to better manage their private counterparts. Although this would treat the trend toward contractors as irreversible, it is a realistic response to what's been happening for more than a decade.

Intelligence officials have done admirable work creating employment policies and incentives to retain today's government professionals, and they should continue that effort. But they also should direct more of their policy energy toward improving contractor management and oversight. Too often, this is treated as a parochial concern of interest only to procurement professionals. This is a myopic and dangerously misguided approach to running intelligence.

The government hasn't failed to manage its contractor workforce simply because it's so big. Rather, there aren't enough people in government today who really understand how to manage contracts on today's scale.

Intelligence leaders didn't need a newspaper exposé to tell them this, but it was a useful reminder.

Their next moves will tell us how closely they've paid attention.

Shane Harris is the author of The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State. He was a staff writer at Government Executive from 2001-2005.

 
FROM OUR SPONSORS
JOIN THE DISCUSSION
Close [ x ] More from GovExec
 
 

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Forecasting Cloud's Future

    Conversations with Federal, State, and Local Technology Leaders on Cloud-Driven Digital Transformation

    Download
  • The Big Data Campaign Trail

    With everyone so focused on security following recent breaches at federal, state and local government and education institutions, there has been little emphasis on the need for better operations. This report breaks down some of the biggest operational challenges in IT management and provides insight into how agencies and leaders can successfully solve some of the biggest lingering government IT issues.

    Download
  • Communicating Innovation in Federal Government

    Federal Government spending on ‘obsolete technology’ continues to increase. Supporting the twin pillars of improved digital service delivery for citizens on the one hand, and the increasingly optimized and flexible working practices for federal employees on the other, are neither easy nor inexpensive tasks. This whitepaper explores how federal agencies can leverage the value of existing agency technology assets while offering IT leaders the ability to implement the kind of employee productivity, citizen service improvements and security demanded by federal oversight.

    Download
  • IT Transformation Trends: Flash Storage as a Strategic IT Asset

    MIT Technology Review: Flash Storage As a Strategic IT Asset For the first time in decades, IT leaders now consider all-flash storage as a strategic IT asset. IT has become a new operating model that enables self-service with high performance, density and resiliency. It also offers the self-service agility of the public cloud combined with the security, performance, and cost-effectiveness of a private cloud. Download this MIT Technology Review paper to learn more about how all-flash storage is transforming the data center.

    Download
  • Ongoing Efforts in Veterans Health Care Modernization

    This report discusses the current state of veterans health care

    Download

When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.