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Government-Contractor Relationships: Collaborative, Cordial or Conflict-Laden?

Each week, GovLoop partners with the Washington Post to host a question that ponders a topic of importance in government - one that might come up over the water cooler, but that isn't necessarily discussed more broadly. This week's question is:

  • What’s your relationship like with contractors in your agency? 
  • Is it cordial, collaborative...or conflict-laden?

I've been on the contractor side of that equation and I know that there's high potential for tension as government strives to monitor and manage against a Statement of Work, putting pressure on a contractor to deliver at the best possible value.

There's also some awkwardness and frustration that emerges when contractors want to push the envelope with innovative solutions or when there are organizational culture differences that have an impact on public-private partners sitting side-by-side.

Then again, sometimes it just clicks and a powerful alliance produces an outcome that exceeds what either government or a vendor could have accomplished alone.

  • So what's the environment in your government-contractor relationships?

Feel free to weigh in via the comments below. If you'd like to remain anonymous, shoot me an email at andrew@govloop.com. Of course, you can always respond over on the Post as well.


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Let me approach this from a different perspective.  With the recent conference fiasco at GSA PBS, we are now seeing knee-jerk reactions on the parts of both Agencies and Congress to avoid future travel/conference problems.  That's fine, except for the historical fact that some conferences or events (hosted by such as professional associations like NCMA, public private partnership like ACT-IAC or trade/industry associations like PSC) are a pretty good venue for Agency personnel to engage their industry peers at a professional level to learn what's going on in the marketplace, etc.  Any further removal of government acquisition professionals from the knowledge of the marketplace or the squashing of venues for professional-level engagements will only make the acquisition problems of government worse.  Call these engagements collaboration or whatever else, smarter buyers spend the taxpayer's dollars more wisely (at least, that's the hope).  

Do people in offices always know who's a contractor and who isn't?

For the most part.  Usually each has different badge colors and email domains.

Ah, thanks for the insight!

It is written into our contracts at the USCG that contractors must identify themselves as contractors.  (Not to mention the different badges and email domains).

I use to be a contractor and now I'm a government employee so this issue always interests me.  In the end it really just seems to come down to the people you are working with. If you have a good govie and a good contractor all goes well, but if either one in this equation is weak then things start to fall apart.  Right now I have a great relationship with my contractors (I am the COTR), but I've also seen what happens when things go really bad (in that case it was a bad govie AND a bad contractor - double wammy). 

I think it can be all of those cases depending upon the department, agency, office, division or project. Government-contractor relationship dynamics are very complicated, and there are many reasons why -- far too many to cover in one discussion thread. I will say that one of the root-cause issues is the government's fundamental misunderstanding of how and when to engage industry. I'm not saying that contractors haven't given the government reason to show reluctance,  but in general the government needs to "take down this wall." This wall is stymying government's ability to innovate, deliver value and continuously improve services to the public. This is why the former federal CIO, Vivek Kindra, launched a campaign to increase industry engagement in his 25 point plan.

True story: I was a contractor for nine years before I was a civil servant. One day, I had a senior contracting person (a Navy Captain responsible for a contracting command) tell me that "Contractors are like pencils. When they wear out or get dull, you simply throw them away and order some new ones." I never forgot his words or how they made me feel. I was a veteran and had done some pretty remarkable things for guys like him - to include saving the lives of my fellow active duty comrades on more than one occasion. I considered myself dedicated and very much a part of the family. His words hurt. I felt betrayed, like an outsider, and less willing to go above and beyond in the future. 

Email addresses issued in the Defense Department usually have the label ".ctr" added to the name of contractors. (Sally.Smith@military.mil would be Sally.Smith.ctr@military.mil). I had mixed feeling about this. I knew that contractors had occasionally stepped over the line and done things like committed resources in the name of the government (a bad thing to do), but I always felt like it was label that somehow diminished the importance of the message. If a message came from a government person, it got more attention. 

I've seen lots of class warfare between contractor and civil servant. I did my best once I became a civil servant (and a certified COR) to ensure a healthy environment that included mutual respect and participation. 

Pete hit the nail on the head. Knee jerk reactions to the GSA fiasco will only hurt in the long-run, as the knowledge sharing and transfer is vital. All the events are part of "MythBusters," since they really get to the heart of collaboration and cooperation. 

Nonetheless, I heard this week on the phone a Contracting Officer tell another federal employee "Watch out for Mrs. X, she is a contractor and they can not be trusted."

I just shook my head. We still have a long way to go obviously, but these venues only help.

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