Last Sunday was graduation day at Duke. In our Master of Public Policy program, over half of the graduating students are employed, and over half of those employed are going to work for government consulting firms. Their salaries are about 20% higher than those who are working in government jobs, and they have been impressed with the training and mentoring available to them in the private workforce. They also talk a lot about the variety of possible assignments, as these are Millennials who want continued new challenges and absolutely no routine.
These are good jobs that make it possible to live comfortably in DC and pay off student loans. Students who takes these positions are smart and polished. But most of them came to Duke interested in working in the public or nonprofit sectors. In addition to compensation and professional development incentives, getting recruited and hired by a federal consulting firm was far easier than submitting endless applications to USAJOBS, networking with every federal employee they can find, and being frustrated when no replies are forthcoming.
A couple of my students will even be working in agency offices alongside federal employees, doing the same work for higher salary and, I imagine, a higher cost to taxpayers, since private contractors come with overhead charges. Smart federal managers have figured out how to skirt the cumbersome hiring process by hiring employees through designated contractors. Who can blame them?
According to Project on Government Oversight (pogo.org), federal contractor compensation is 1.8 times the cost of federal employees’ compensation and benefits. NYU Professor Paul Light has also expressed concerns that the federal contractor workforce is possibly up to 3 times the size of the federal workforce. Do the math, it’s amazingly expensive. But if the political will were available, costs could be contained. If OMB could create a cost comparison model for evaluating bids and contracts for agencies to use, Congress could impose some cost restrictions on contractors.
More important to me are the non-financial implications of increasing reliance on non-federal employees to do the people’s work, such as
- erosion of in-house capacity, as federal employees become contract managers rather than subject matter experts and problem-solvers;
- loss of institutional memory, when consultants build expertise and program knowledge then move on to another project;
- lack of accountability and mission orientation, as consultants must worry about their company’s bottom line as much as they worry about making government better.
Can the hiring process be made easier and more transparent, or do we succumb to the continued use of private contractors? Is it better to try to contain the costs of contracting with rules and guidelines, or just make it easier to hire a federal employee who will become an expert, stick around, and maybe even change the world?