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When Top Feds Cash In, They Lead by Example

Lucrative contracts and consulting positions are luring more than long-serving feds.

Uncle Sam wants you—to come in and stay awhile. Recently, National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers delivered an earnest pitch to reacquaint university students with the NSA, and asked them to look past lengthy hiring processes and salary cuts to consider the rewards of federal service. Meanwhile, his predecessor at NSA, retired Gen. Keith Alexander, fresh off raising over $30 million for his private cybersecurity firm IronNet, is offering a competing bid for talent right in NSA’s backyard. 

Alexander's IronNet has stirred allegations that he is profiting from the privileges of his former government post. Fueling the controversy was IronNet’s prospective collaboration with NSA’s Chief Technology Officer, a deal IronNet ultimately scuttled after it came to light last fall. While eyes are on the top brass, little attention has been paid to IronNet’s recruitment of young engineers, an issue that acutely plagued the NSA during Alexander’s tenure.  

Lucrative contracts and consulting positions have long been the unofficial severance package awaiting top government officials after decades of public service. Ironically, many of these same senior officials were responsible for coaxing the government’s millennial workforce to stay amid the current unprecedented retention crisis. What’s different is that IronNet is changing the game of Washington’s revolving door, at a time when the fed’s junior ranks—and private firms—are realizing they’re a hot ticket, and without having to put in 35 years of service first.

Statistically, millennials in any sector are less likely to commit to a lifetime of corporate ladder climbing at a single company. Meanwhile, federal agencies are shedding young talent quicker than they can backfill. Many millennials leaving government find they can double their salaries, just as their former bosses have. Federal employees under 30 weighed down by student debt and interfacing with outdated IT find the flexible and increasingly socially conscious private sector an enticing alternative.

But despite the perks of the private sector, many millennials find breaking up with Uncle Sam a difficult choice. Many would prefer a middle ground.

If Alexander’s challenge of traditional private-public boundaries isn’t a wakeup call for federal human capital offices, then it should be. IronNet's career page boasts job openings for engineers in Maryland and Virginia, the largest concentration of the nation's federal workforce. Never before has an ex-government official stood up an entity that directly competes with the government for talent at every position level and especially the agency he formerly headed. On the surface, this presents a troublesome prospect for government agencies, but it doesn’t have to.  

Budget cuts have sent government R&D spending on a steady decline, and the private sector has picked up much of the slack and the tab. Leaders across government, to include NSA’s current director, have emphasized the need for federal agencies to embrace private sector partnerships to resolve shortcomings in funding and innovation. Therefore, heads of federal agencies could and should leverage the network of ex-federal employees to create institutional partnerships. Cultural and trust barriers could be diminished at every level of operation. Welcome to the Silicon Beltway.

Government agencies can lay the foundations for a relationship where they benefit from—rather than compete with—private partnerships and revitalize the appeal of government service. Here’s how:

  • Lower barriers to entry (and exit). The vetting and application process for federal positions is lengthy. Federal employees choosing to take leave from government service for a private sector opportunity, education, or personal reasons find themselves in bureaucratic exile and no closer to returning to government than any other applicant. Resolving this entails a cultural shift as much as an administrative one: challenging the government’s premium on “time-in-service” and coming to value diverse professional experiences.
  • Leverage the network of ex-federal employees in the private sector. Agencies should maintain relationships with former employees at an institutional level just as an academic institution would with its alumni network.
  • Don’t just make transition between the public and private sector easier—make it a requirement. Many agencies require joint duty assignments—temporary rotations at another government organization. The JDA is popular and effective at enhancing collaboration and expertise, and there is no reason to believe it wouldn’t render the same benefits if extended to the private sector. Rotations for senior and junior-level officials would ensure cross-pollination of lessons learned at all levels.

In his remarks to the audience of prospective future employees, NSA’s Rogers concluded that “the future is flat” with respect to private-public partnerships. In the free market competition for talent, federal agencies need to take steps to ensure that this doesn’t mean getting crushed.

Jacqueline Burns Koven served in the Department of Defense from 2009-2015. She is attending graduate school at Columbia University in New York.

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