Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Federal Contracting: a Plague on Both Your Houses!

President Obama signed the $626 billion defense bill recently, and various columnists and bloggers have decried what is or is not in the final version, including various ships, planes, and helicopters that are of no use or are vastly over budget. To me just as big a problem is the federal government's use of contractors. I'm not the only one who has noticed: the President himself asked for $40 billion in contracting costs to be cut over the next two budgets, and CNAS and others have come out with reports, but more attention needs to be paid.
Contractors come in multiple flavors (for the moment I'm not talking about government contracts to buy goods or materials). Some consider themselves "consultants" and swoop in with their MBAs and PowerPoint flow charts from companies like McKinsey or Deloitte, tell the government what they are doing wrong using proprietary jargon, and swoop on to the next project. A second group are essentially mercenaries, like the infamous Xe (formerly Blackwater) and others who serve in and around combat zones, primarily supporting the troops, but frequently overstepping their bounds. I have plenty of problems with those groups, but for now will focus on the third kind of contractors who are, for the most part, seat fillers hired by various agencies to supplement the federal workforce (whether their physical seats are in government buildings or not doesn't really matter, they are intended to supplement or replace federal employees by their mere presence).
I've worked as a "seat filling" contractor before, and I can tell you it is far from the most efficient way of doing things. Federal employees may be notorious for being inefficient and not hard working, a reputation that is normally false, but I can tell you that contractors are generally no better. Many if not most contractors actually want federal jobs, but have been unable to fight through the bureaucracy. Because contractors, usually make more than federal employees, and because the company makes overhead on top of their salaries, they don't normally end up being any cheaper than federal employees. The Bush administration wanted a smaller government and the flexibility to have a surge of workers, but the contractor complexes that have sprouted up around Northern Virginia demonstrate the long-term nature of federal seat-filling contracting. As the contracting workforce grows and the federal government remains stagnant the size of each portfolio of contracts administered by an individual federal employee increases drastically, leading to a lack of specificity, oversight, standards, and quality of work. Many of my contractor friends are bored out of their skulls in their cubicles in Northern Virginia because the over-worked federal employee only has so much time to look over their work, give them new projects, or do much of his own work, so the contractors sit burning contract hours slowly, wasting everyone's time.
The federal government needs to streamline its hiring process and hire the best of these contractors into permanent government service. As the last wave of federal employees starts to retire they will need replacing, so let the new generation start learning on the job. Hiring people who have served as contractors to administer contracts will lead to better performance from both parties. Federal contractors were intended to serve as short term surges for projects. They should actually serve that way rather than as expensive, non-empowered, de facto federal employees who are contracted out simply because they can't be hired quickly enough or to avoid having a bigger government. End the facade, it hurts everyone.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Tale of Two Speeches

President Obama gave two important foreign policy speeches recently, and the opinion pages and blogosphere can't seem to stop talking about them. I didn't want to have my voice be lost in the immediate aftermath, but now that much of the dust has settled I thought I'd add a few thoughts.
The President's long-awaited speech rolling out his new Afghanistan strategy pleased almost no one who chose to examine it closely. It took too long, it wasn't detailed enough, it was too specific, some of the details were wrong, he didn't focus on Pakistan enough, he focused too much on Pakistan... Jon Stewart made fun of it for being too much like a speech President Bush could have given. Some bloggers complained that he had conflated the Afghanistan and Pakistani Taliban, and that anyone who doesn't understand the difference couldn't possibly come up with a good strategy. The West Point cadets watching the speech didn't seem to know how to respond until the speech stopped being specific and started going in to broad, soaring generalities and hopeful themes - Obama's specialty. In the days following the speech it turned out that few of the specifics were actually totally true. The troop "surge" may not take place until Fall 2010, and they will only "start" to be pulled out in Summer 2011. The speech failed to be all things to all people, and thus was not well received.
President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech made up for it in a big way. It was masterfully written and beautifully delivered. Critics called it the best of Obama's career, and certainly the best of his Presidency so far. It spoke truth to the power of the Nobel committee, addressed the oddity of winning a peace prize while leading a nation engaged in two wars, acknowledged previous winners, and defended the use of military force while advancing progressive ideals. It was a perfect encapsulation of the Truman Project worldview - which makes sense since it was written by someone affiliated with the Truman Project. Writers from the progressive side to at least the conservative moderation of David Brooks loved the speech. About all critics of the speech could say was that it was rambling and disjointed. I loved the speech, but the critics are right. Everyone was happy with it because they could read what they wanted into the speech. Dan Drezner made an attempt to map out the various international relations theories referred to in the speech. It was another classic piece of Obama magic: choosing the middle path and creating buy-in from all sides by incorporating their arguments. It made for a powerful speech, but it will be hard to predict his future foreign policy moves based on a speech that left almost every door open.