Across the Divide

Government’s next leaders must strike a balance between civil servants and federal contractors.

Government's next leaders must strike a balance between civil servants and federal contractors.

Washington, we have a problem.

The attitude of institutional Washington (Congress, the media, watchdog organizations and others) about two key components of government-civil servants and contractors-ranges from ambivalence to outright hostility.

In the case of civil servants, the conventional wisdom is that there are too many of them, they are overpaid, and they do not consistently deliver high-quality services. In the case of contractors, the thinking is that they make too much money, some are downright corrupt and many fail to deliver the results promised on projects.

There is mounting criticism that there are too many government contractors and that the services they perform should be returned to civil servants. In March, former comptroller general David M. Walker said about the Defense Department, "There is a need to focus greater attention on what type of functions should be contracted out and which ones should not." Another March report from the Government Accountability Office concluded, "A major concern is the risk of loss of government control over and accountability for mission-related policy and program decisions."

But government employees haven't had a stellar track record. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Federal Emergency Management Agency was blamed for its lack of preparedness and inadequate response. Numerous instances of poor contract management by federal agencies have been cited, ranging from the collapse of the FBI's Virtual Case File project to the Census Bureau's problems with developing handheld computers for data collection. The State Department received considerable negative publicity in 2007 when it was unable to issue passports in a timely manner.

The new administration must sort out the appropriate balance between civil servants and government contractors. Meeting this challenge raises tough questions:

  • Civil service. Will the next administration commit to recruiting the best and brightest to improve the prestige of federal service? Will there be reforms in pay, benefits, and development and training opportunities to make government a more attractive employer? If the pendulum has swung too far toward the use of contractors, how many federal employees is it prepared to add? The number of executive branch employees (excluding 747,000 U.S. Postal Service workers) stands at 1.89 million. Is the next administration willing to exceed 2 million so government can perform more services currently provided by contractors?
  • Contractors. Government will continue to rely on contractors. Contract support offers greater flexibility to fulfill immediate and unexpected needs. Will the next administration be willing to devote more time and energy to make contracts work better? This will require hiring more acquisition specialists, training government program managers in managing contractors, and sharing knowledge about effective contract management practices among agencies.
  • Blended workforce. Operating a blended workforce presents many challenges. Will the new administration train civil servants and contractors so they can work together effectively? Will it develop rules of engagement that better define the relationship between these employees?

The next administration must deal with these issues straight on to assess the problem, improvise and test options, and determine what needs to be done. Only then will government services-and attitudes about the employees who deliver them-improve.

Paul R. Lawrence is a vice president of Accenture's George Group. Mark A. Abramson is president of Leadership Inc.