The Sleeper C

Fifty billion reasons to ask, "Who is minding the store?"

by / August 3, 2005
Since the mid-1800s, and the days of the infamous William March "Boss" Tweed and the Tammany Hall Machine, greed and avarice have been the stuff of government scandal. So too is incompetence, defined in a parody of the motivational posters hanging in your conference room: "When you earnestly believe you can compensate for a lack of skill by doubling your efforts, there is no end to what you can't do."

Earnestness and extraordinary efforts are laudable characteristics of contemporary public service. They are the vestiges of JFK's call to public service, as was exceptional competence. A public-sector brain drain in the intervening years has been well documented, caused by factors such as better pay in the private sector, frustratingly high levels of inertia in government and the effects of a retirement bow wave by those who came of age during the short reign of Camelot.

The nature of public service also changed in remarkable ways during that time. In their recent book, Governing by Network, former Indianapolis Mayor Stephen Goldsmith and Manhattan Institute senior fellow Bill Eggers -- the latter a frequent contributor to this magazine -- summarize research by two Beltway think tanks on who is doing the public's work these days.

The Brookings Institution estimates that between 1999 and 2002, federal contractors outnumbered federal employees by more than 2-to-1 with the federal government spending $100 billion per year more on contracts than employee salaries. The Government Contracting Institute sees a similar trend in state government, citing 65 percent growth in contracts with private companies from 1996 to 2001. These contracts are now worth $400 billion, consuming 19 percent of state operating budgets. Importantly the number excludes Medicaid but includes state IT spending.

For their part, the Center for Digital Government and other research organizations estimate state and local government will contract $50 billion in IT-related goods and services this year. Taken together, these estimates describe a contracting landscape far larger and far more critical than could have been imagined when contracting officers and attorneys were slotted in halfway up, or down, the civil service system food chain. To be clear, the incumbents in these roles have served well and proudly -- but the game has changed.

Government lacks bench strength and may have the wrong bench at a time when contracting competence is central to getting almost anything done. The systemic imbalance between public and private sectors in the expertise each side brings to the process of conceiving, negotiating and administering contracts is not sustainable. It does not protect or promote the public interest -- nor does it serve the interests of private firms that have a long-term view of their government practices, which will only be as good as their reputations allow.

An old wag in this business is fond of reminding us that the procurement rules under which government still operates were a reaction to the excesses and overt corruption of Tammany Hall. In the last 150 years, hard-earned trust has helped reduce the burden of those rules and introduce some flexibility to how government buys what it needs. Those gains, and any that we hope to see moving forward, will stand or fall on the competence of the "Sleeper C" -- the contracting official who can codify a new way of doing government and make it scale in a massively contractor-dependent world.

The salaries for state university football coaches -- often many multiples of that of the governor -- are justified largely by the amount of money that flows through their programs. If one were to extend that logic to the public-sector IT community, contracting officers and attorneys would make multiples of the CIOs for whom they work. And it would be a shrewd bargain at that.

Paul W. Taylor Chief Content Officer, e.Republic Inc.

Paul W. Taylor, Ph.D., is the editor-at-large of Governing magazine. He also serves as the chief content officer of e.Republic, Governing’s parent organization, as well as senior advisor to the Governing Institute. Prior to joining e.Republic, Taylor served as deputy Washington state CIO and chief of staff of the state Information Services Board (ISB). Dr. Taylor came to public service following decades of work in media, Internet start-ups and academia. He is also among a number of affiliated experts with the non-profit, non-partisan Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) in Washington, D.C.