Congressman Gerry Connolly (D) from the 11th district of Virginia spoke to us last week about the mood on Capitol Hill toward government contractors and the looming personnel crisis in the federal procurement sector. Connolly told us how he plans to fill Tom Davis’ big shoes as an advocate for the government contracting industry and how streamlining the procurement process will level the government contracting playing field and facilitate government transparency.
ExecutiveBiz: Where do you feel the balance lies between government in-sourcing and contracting with respect to innovation?
Connolly: As somebody who served as the head of a local government for five years, serving fourteen years total on the Fairfax County, Va., Board of Supervisors, and having been in the private sector for twenty years, at two companies that were federal contractors, for me, this is not a matter of theology. It’s a matter of proper roles, expertise, and cost. There are some functions, like acquisition, that are properly brought inside government, but in terms of other responsibilities and functions, frankly, I think they should be examined on a case-by-case basis. I think we’re in real danger if we start to try to have some broad principles that preclude outside contracting or preclude, for that matter, the government workforce. Bottom line: it’s not a matter of theology.
ExecutiveBiz: What role do you think Congress should play in getting the highest-quality executives involved in the procurement process?
Connolly: I think we have to look at two things immediately: One is how well our recruitment and retention policies are working. In fiscal year 2000, there were 56,000 federal employees to manage $208 billion worth of contracts. Seven years later, there were 61,000 acquisition personnel managing $517 billion. So, while the value of contracts in that period increased by 149%, the workforce devoted to managing them only increased by 9%. We’ve got our work cut out for us to just try to fill the ranks and then make sure we retain them. We have a very substantial brain drain going on in the federal government because the private sector can appear more lucrative and more attractive. We’ve got to look at the conditions within the workforce and try to make acquisition jobs more attractive. We must work awfully hard to make sure that the working conditions are such that we can retain those people because the private sector also is pursuing acquisition personnel who are skilled and capable of managing large and complex contracts, and they don’t want to do that for the government. That’s something we can agree on: We need thousands more federal employees who are trained to manage large, complex procurements and acquisitions, and I think that’s the first order of business.
“I think it’s important that political figures, including the President, resist the temptation to paint with a broad brush all federal contractors as suspect…Whether in cybersecurity, healthcare, or defense, we couldn’t function as a government without private-sector partners.”
-Congressman Gerry Connolly
ExecutiveBiz: How should Congress remedy the IT RFP requirements to make them more innovation-friendly?
Connolly: I agree with Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra and Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra that the current situation is very complex, very elaborate, and, frankly, there are probably some companies that have expertise or resources that the federal government would like to acquire, but they are precluded from participating because it’s just too expensive. The up-front cost of trying to comply with 2,000 pages of RFP regulations is very, very expensive. Streamlining regulations is something Congress wants to do to level the playing field and rationalize the current process.
ExecutiveBiz: Do you think streamlining the procurement process make transparency via electronic dashboards more feasible?
Connolly: I do. The Department of Defense has pioneered one way to streamline the procurement process through the defensesolutions.gov website. We can do this on an agency-by-agency basis. I don’t think you’d do it for the government as a whole. I think you’d have to look at each agency and its unique requirements and functions, and you can do a dashboard agency by agency, and even divisions and programs within those agencies. I don’t see any reason why the federal government can’t achieve the same goals that the private sector achieves.
ExecutiveBiz: How will you protect government contracting jobs?
Connolly: I was in the contracting workforce for twenty years, most recently at SAIC. I come from the contracting world and I don’t see federal contractors as anything but a resource for the federal government. They can perform functions that government otherwise could not perform itself within any reasonable timeframe or resource constraints. I think it’s a very important partnership, and it’s one I will continue to stress.
ExecutiveBiz: How do you plan on improving the consensus view on Capitol Hill of government contractors?
Connolly: I think we have to separate bad apples from the mass of federal contractors who do a good job every day. I went to Iraq and Afghanistan earlier this year, and there are federal contractors standing side-by-side with military and civilian personnel in harm’s way to serve our country. So, the fact that a particular contract may not have gone well ought not to be used as emblematic of the industry, and I’m going to resist that and urge others to do the same. I’ve already been an advocate on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee. We’ve had a number of hearings on this very subject, and I’ve made that point repeatedly. I think we’re making some headway with my colleagues in the Congress. It’s easy to demonize a whole industry, but I don’t think it’s productive and I don’t think it’s fair.
ExecutiveBiz: How does Cyber Command affect the public/private partnership in securing the Internet?
Connolly: The origins of the Internet were defense in nature, but when that technology was commercialized, we saw its enormous potential and how it has transformed our world. Nuclear power started out as military technology, and virtually all civilian nuclear plants in the U.S. are predicated upon technology originally developed for the military. Look at all the space technology that’s been commercialized and how it has improved our quality of life. So you need those partnerships, and I don’t think it can be one or the other. I represent a district that has the second-largest number of technology companies in the country. We have a highly-skilled workforce and the private sector certainly has something to contribute and knows more than a little about cybersecurity. So I believe that the Pentagon will have no choice but to use that talent. There are private-sector management techniques and processes that the government can benefit from. The private sector isn’t perfect – no more than the government is perfect. I have seen the benefits of that partnership over the years, here in Northern Virginia, where companies are performing outstanding work for the federal government, and I expect that partnership to deepen and continue. I think it’s important that political figures, including the President, resist the temptation to paint with a broad brush all federal contractors as suspect. I’m confident that the President will come to appreciate the role and function of federal contractors in the mission, whatever that may be. Whether in cybersecurity, healthcare, or defense, we couldn’t function as a government without private-sector partners.
ExecutiveBiz: Anything you want to add?
Connolly: One of the things I’m concerned about on the federal level is how we continue to maintain a skilled workforce. Thirty-three percent of the entire federal workforce has more than 25 years of service, which means they’re coming up on retirement. Another 27% have 15-24 years of service. So, when you look at the federal workforce, one of the challenges we’re going to face is, “How do we recruit and maintain a skilled workforce in the future?” That’s going to be critical for us. We talked about acquisition personnel, and the other big challenge is to make sure government personnel have the skill set to manage large, complex procurement contracts. The two statistics I cited at the beginning of this interview are very dramatic. Contracting dollars increased 149% and personnel only increased 9%. That’s not going to cut it. I think there’s a looming personnel crisis, both in the demographic bulge of baby boomers getting ready to retire, and in the failure of the federal government to properly staff up for large procurement contracts. I think we need to spend more time on that, rather than bashing an industry that has contributed greatly to our public welfare. In my view, these are the two great challenges that face the federal workforce in the coming years.
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