I recently participated in a panel discussion addressing concerns surrounding the concept of inherently governmental. As a career public servant who now labors in the private sector, I have seen the notion of inherently governmental from both sides of the fence. In our constitutional view of government there are specific duties assigned to the federal government, clarified and evolved over time by our system of checks and balances, with everything else requiring service to the public more or less defaulting to the state and local governments.
The questions surrounding what should be inherently governmental seem to spring from concerns about what is the proper role of government versus those who provide contract support to government operations, and what constitutes a conflict of interest between those who define and oversee services versus those who perform services or provide products.
Where you stand depends on where you sit. Lately some folks in positions of responsibility in government have expressed concern about government officials becoming too dependent on contractor support. They fret that the revolving door between government and industry sets the stage for conflict of interest between the personal, corporate and public well-being.
However, the government has recognized for some time that its work force is aging and the need for well-trained professionals to accomplish the government’s work has and will continue to exceed the internal capacity of the government workforce. The cost of maintaining a large, professional government workforce coupled with a cultural distrust and political reluctance to sustain a larger government, drives the need for substantial, ongoing support from the private sector for every conceivable type of service, product and good.
So, what to do? First, the government needs to step up to the continuing need for recruiting, training and retaining an adequate career workforce, especially in the critical areas of program management, contracting and other professional skills necessary for the execution of constitutional government mandates.
The government needs to establish and maintain clear guidelines for what is inherently governmental and what is appropriate for contractor support. Then government must provide the tools and resources necessary to do the job, and create financial and career incentives for sustaining a stable, career executive and professional cadre.
Acknowledge that a close, working partnership with industry is necessary and healthy, not a necessary evil. A revolving door isn’t inherently bad. It can provide scarce skills and fresh perspectives at all levels of government, and enable the flow of career professionals between government and industry. This builds broader understanding and mutual experience on both sides of the government-private sector partnership, enabling world-class support for government needs.
The key to making this vision of an interdependent government-industry model work is accountability. Create the “bright lines” defining what is inherently governmental, empower an interdependent government-industry model and hold senior executives accountable on both sides for upholding longstanding expectations of ethical behavior. The groundwork exists. The major change required is to accept this as a normal and rational way to do the government’s business.