The Office of Federal Procurement Policy is promoting the idea of allowing contracting personnel to rotate between the government and the private sector. This proposal is the last thing we need if we want to enhance the federal acquisition workforce. In fact, it threatens to undermine everything the Obama Administration has done to rein in the influence of lobbyists and to slow the revolving door that carries special interest influence in and out of the government.
Allowing contracting personnel to “bounce back and forth between rotational assignments between industries and agencies…externships, things like that,” should not be on the table as a solution to federal acquisition workforce problems. There was much criticism of allowing contractors to oversee contractors, and this is even worse in terms of personal and organizational conflicts of interests.
Unfortunately, arm’s-length dealings have been replaced by a partnership model. If you ask the public about who gets federal contracts, you might hear a few responses about backroom deals. Part of what is creating that impression is cozy deals and the revolving door between the government and industry. It’s a major concern at the Defense Department (DoD)—so much so that Congress required certain former-DoD contracting personnel and their private sector employers to report revolving door instances in a database. POGO has been very vocal about the revolving door and financial influences in the contracting system, and even tracks the revolving door between Wall Street and the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Such movement creates an actual or perceived conflict of interest. President Obama realized this, so he tightened the restrictions on senior officials moving in and out of the government.
There is no doubt that some contract fraud, waste, and abuse isn’t being prevented or found because of weakening the acquisition workforce (and any recent strengthening might be undone due to budget cuts). Those issues might increase as a large portion of the contracting workforce becomes eligible to retire in the near future. Additionally, government workers struggle with low morale, and contracting work is often a thankless job. I’m finding it difficult, however, to find the value added by allowing contractors to “case the joint” or government personnel to use the government as a stepping stone to the private sector. There are other ways to incentivize work and as a result hire and retain a skilled, knowledgeable, and motivated contracting workforce. We need to abandon this attempt to start a government-sponsored revolving door and the ethics headaches that will result.