There was a time when everyone or almost everyone who worked for the U.S. federal government was an actual government employee.
That time has passed.
Today, and every day, contractors do mission-critical U.S. government work. Without their efforts, the government would come to a stop.
Like millions of Americans, I have worked as a contractor in the past. From the contractor's standpoint, and not including business support activities common to most businesses, the job boils down to three verbs: deliver, recommend, and capture.
Delivery is the first and most important activity. If you are a government contractor, you get hired to do jobs when a government employee with a budget has decided (at least) two things:
- It was better to hire out than to do the work from the inside, for some reason; and
- Your firm was the best option based on factors like cost, quality, promptness, etc., among all candidate firms within some (probably competitive) vendor selection process.
Once the statement of work is agreed upon and the contract is signed, the contractor's first responsibility is to fulfill the agreement. The contractor must deliver everything listed in the statement of work. At a minimum, success means meeting the requirements listed in the contract. Traditionally, that means meeting the scope/schedule/cost trifecta: delivering an agreed-upon scope of products or services on schedule and within budget.
Today, in practical terms success usually expands beyond the trifecta to include additional factors like customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, functional requirements (i.e. does the delivered product or service do the job), and profit (necessary for the contracting firm to continue operations). It also means navigating the risks, scope creep, and other unknowns that may pop up during contract fulfillment.
Different contractors also have their own measures for success even beyond even these. One of mine is taxpayer value. As Abraham Lincoln stated during the "Gettysburg Address," the U.S. Government is by, of, and for the people. The citizen is the ultimate boss. If a contractor can look in a mirror post-contract and know that they did right by the people, that matters. Others include personal integrity and, by extension, the "Washington Post Rule." The number of possible success factors is large, maybe even limitless, and also job-specific.
Important as successful delivery is, it is not the contractor's only job. Making recommendations is a second, informal responsibility.
By necessity, in order to do the jobs they are hired to do, government contractors may gain privileged access into certain government operations. With that access comes the responsibility to uphold U.S. law and regulations and protect the integrity of those operations, which likely involves submitting to some type of security clearance process. This privileged access also means that contractors observe both government efficiencies and inefficiencies first hand.
Recommending a possible improvement to a government employee can be tricky, unless the contract was specifically for this purpose. Pitfalls abound. The government employee will probably have more situational awareness and may have more expertise. And when a contractor wades outside of his/her own specifically approved area of work, they have no authority. Contractors have only their own two eyes, their expertise and skills, and their relationships. It is easy for a contractor to cross a line, work at counter purposes, and make someone angry.
And yet, win/wins do exist. Logically, they must exist because contractors are hired because they have capabilities or attributes that make them preferable over government workers. And it is a shame to let a good win/win go to waste.
To make this more concrete, a contractor who is a cloud computing expert should consider fielding customer questions about a new type of cloud computing service, even if it is not be part of the current contract, because efficiencies may result. Or, if a contractor notices a governmental process that could be running 3x as fast with no additional labor and limited risk, she should consider mentioning it to a willing federal employee, in the appropriate way.
Certainly, recommendations are always secondary to contract delivery, assuming they are not included in the scope of work. If making a recommendation is out of scope, then it is unpaid work. Unpaid takes resources, the loss of which could result in inferior delivery.
That said, once again, win/wins do exist. If both the contractor and the federal employee approach the contractor's recommendations in a smart, efficient way that respects available commitments and resources, both can benefit. So can the taxpayer.
After delivery and recommending, there is one final activity that is necessary for the government contractor: capturing new contracts.
Successful businesses outlast their contracts. First, longevity is necessary because businesses that cease to exist also cease to deliver products and services. Second, longevity is usually necessary to get the contract in the first place because customers want confidence that will not happen.
So, all government contractors try to capture more business constantly. This may take a variety of forms: bidding on a competitive contract, getting on a federal government schedule as an official provider of a service, etc. No matter the form, if the contract is captured, it results in a stream of revenue to support the company and its employees.
The risk with "contract capture" is that the interests of the provider and the customer are not aligned. Federal employees want the job to get done and support the agency mission, and contractors try to maximize profits. It is kind of like getting your car worked on at the mechanic's; the mechanic will always will want to upsell you.
This suggests a problem not only for government employees but also for honest businesses. How can an honest contractor compete with a dishonest one, when the dishonest contractor is willing to cut corners and sacrifice integrity for profit?
In practice, the answer is "prevent that situation with carrots, sticks, and organizational methods." Use competition to lower prices; information, oversight, and confidentiality to add transparency and reduce the chance of collusion; a permanent, non-political, integrity-valuing federal workforce empowered to do the best they can to achieve their mission; inspectors general to investigate fraud, waste, and abuse within agencies; etc. These steps and others make it as harder for any firm to choose to charge bloated prices and rents for their products or services, protect taxpayer's interests, and allow the federal government to use its massive purchasing power for public benefit.
The best government contractors capture contracts on an ongoing basis by offering superior deliverables with integrity and following the rules, earning a reputation of trust and a history of excellent-quality delivery for all their customers, both public and private.
And the most effective government employees remember their responsibility to make wise decisions about what work to do internally and what work to contract out; and if they put out a contract, to do so in a way that is advantageous to the citizen and the taxpayer.
Deliver, recommend, and capture summarizes government contractors' everyday priorities.
Mission support (business administration) functions are also in the mix - they are just outside of the scope of this article because they are vanilla functions. Almost every business needs HR, payroll, legal, and the like.
The next time you talk with a government consultant, consider testing the proposition. Ask them if they think recommend/deliver/capture summarizes government contractor priorities, in a nutshell.