Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Ewwwww...a Contractor! (The Rant Revisited)

Just over a year ago I wrote a post titled Ewwwww...a Contractor! in which I lamented the unfairly poor reputation of people like myself who are employed as contractors by government agencies which need help to do their missions. If you took a popularity poll, you would probably find that government contractors rank just above child molesters, but significantly below used car salesmen, investment bankers, and even most members of Congress. It's not quite fair, but if you're a contractor, you get used to it.

Well, last week a gentleman named Thomas Frank kicked over the discussional anthill again with this piece in The Wall Street Journal: Government By Contractor Is A Disgrace. The point of Mr Frank's article was the the Federal Government has abrogated many of its responsibilities and opened the door to inflated costs, graft, and corruption by allowing hired contractors to carry out more and more functions which should be performed by government officials. He describes the situation as a "contractor welfare binge," noting that "contractors work alongside government employees all across Washington, often for much better pay." He notes that "there are seminars you can attend where you will learn how to game the contracting system, reduce your competition, and maximize your haul from good ol' open-handed Uncle Sam."

For what it's worth (and I'm, after all, a contractor myself, so it's probably not much), Mr Frank is right...up to a point.

As I wrote in my earlier post, the surge in contractors supporting government operations is a direct result of contradictory efforts to rein in "big government" - agencies are directed to reduce the size of their staffs to save money, but the services we demand them to deliver are not commensurately reduced. With smaller staffs and he same or growing workloads, agencies need help...and they get it by (surprise!) hiring contractors. Do some contractors "game the system?" Of course. They're in business, and they obey the rules of the marketplace to drum up business. The marketplace...remember that? That was the place that was supposed to keep banks and insurance companies honest, and ended up driving the economy into the toilet and the nation officially into recession.


Don't blame the contractors. We're doing our jobs, both for our company stockholders and for the government agencies we support. There are contractors who work hard and deliver value for the money they charge (yours truly, for instance), and there are those who will do the minimum needed to get by. Just like actual government employees. The real problem is twofold:

1. We need to define what functions are "inherently governmental" and need to be performed only by actual Federal government employees; and,

2. We need to recognize that government oversight of contractors may be mandatory, but isn't carried out very well. Our timesheets are scrutinized and audited, and we go thorough insane amounts of time-consuming administrative paperwork each year designed mainly to provide a paper veneer of official oversight. Real supervision and oversight is frequently absent, though, particularly in the case of IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery, Indefinite Quantity) contracts which are written to provide for general support to an agency, rather than for the delivery of specific products in specific quantities at specific times.

At a time of economic distress when each of us needs every dollar we have, and needs to make each of those dollars go as far as possible, the government is no different. We've created an enormous governmental structure to deliver all the services we demand (and to provide patronage positions for all those campaign contributors), and yet we also demand a reduction in the size of that government. We can't have it both ways. If we buy smaller government by contracting out functions and hiding swollen agency staffs within the ranks of supporting companies, we don't save money. We just kick the problem can down the road for the next administration to worry about...and the bills for our children and grandchildren to pay.

Don't blame the contractors for the problems. Hire us when necessary, provide us with specific tasks and guidance, and hold us accountable. But don't make us the whipping boys if you, Mr/Ms Government Official, are unwilling to step up to your responsibilities.

My name is Bilbo, and I'm a contractor doing a job there isn't a government employee to do. If you don't like that, hire me (or someone better, if you can find him/her) into a government position. Otherwise, please stop describing contractor service as a "disgrace" unless you have a better plan.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Amanda said...

I don't blame you for ranting about this topic again. Maybe just packaging the job function of a contractor as a "service provider" would make people more appreciative.

The Mistress of the Dark said...

Good rant :)

KKTSews said...

Speaking as a fellow-contractor: I also think that most people are unaware of the risks that contractor companies and personnel take. When contracts are year-to-year (which benefits the the govt), each year the personnel and companies must compete for their work. This is quite stressful to the individuals and eats up a lot of resources. So, govt may be paying more for the contractor than they would pay in salary to an employee, but they have bought the flexibility to "fire" the contractor company easily, with no additional costs. Govt employees don't provide that flexibility.

Mike said...

"Mr Frank is right...up to a point."

That's usually the point of all arguments about anything. They start off with a small base of facts and then get distorted according to who is tell the story. It's the American way. No wait, it's the human way.

Go read the comments in the link I added in the comments section of my post today. (That's a mouth full. Say that real fast three times!)

Leslie David said...

Hi Bill,

As a government contractor who works hard for her money and prides herself for having worked for government contracting companies that definitely provide value-addded services, thanks. As you mentioned, government contracting came out of the the government's desire to reduce operating expenses--after all, you don't have to pay those pesky benefits, like healthcare or retirement to government contractors, like you do Federal employees, so they outsourced it to us. I'm an instructional designer. Our people wrote the training and taught the procedures that were used to transport the MRAPS over to Iraq, hopefully no one thinks that was a boondoggle or the equivalent of a 6K toilet seat. Oh yeah, and I'm a fellow former miltary person, having gone through ROTC once the program opened to women, in fact I went to one of the first twelve schools to open its program to women in 1972--Arizona State University.