Last week, the information technology (IT) industry trade publication Government Computer News, held its annual Awards Gala at the Washington Hilton - known as the Academy Awards night for government contractors. This contractor-sponsored extravaganza honored government and industry partnering to achieve “excellence.” We’re not sure what that means exactly, but a number of reports from the dinner indicate that contractors feted themselves for landing large government contract awards, and for generally doing everything they can to permeate all facets of government agency operations, making the distinctions between public servants and their contractor “partners” ever more blurred. Particularly disturbing were the honors bestowed on current government executives, including General James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and John Johnson, Assistant Commissioner of the Federal Acquisition Service at the General Services Administration. These government leaders may very well merit praise for their service on behalf of the public, but it is quite disconcerting to see that praise lavished upon them by contractors who receive billions of dollars a year in contract awards from the organizations these people run.
The sponsors of the event claim that over 1,000 people attended the black-tie reception and dinner in the main ballroom where they dined on scallops and prime rib. It was reportedly an impressive sight, with a multimedia display, and videos of leading government and industry executives touting the benefits of “partnering.” As might be expected, the event was underwritten by “sponsors,” which included virtually every large and mid-sized government IT contractor, including Lockheed-Martin, Boeing, and Northrop-Grumman.
However, everyone I talked to said the evening’ highlight was clearly when Hall of Fame Inductee and contractor lobbyist, Steven Kelman spoke. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mr. Kelman, he is widely credited as being the architect of our government’s current contracting system. Kelman, who as always was introduced as a Harvard Kennedy School professor and former OMB Office of Federal Procurement Policy Administrator (ignoring his role as industry lobbyist), addressed the crowd twice -- the first time through a short video sequence streamed on the large display screens in the banquet hall, and then again “live” when he was presented with his Hall of Fame award.
While we don’t have a transcript of Mr. Kelman’s comments, reports indicate that in his video presentation, he made a point of stating that transparency, small business interests, and accountability are not key issues in government contracting. According to Mr. Kelman, the key issue is supporting the accomplishment of agency mission. We don’t have a problem with supporting accomplishment of agency mission, but we think that transparency and accountability are pretty important too. In fact, if you are successfully accomplishing the agency’s mission, accountability shouldn't be that scary, should it? And speaking of mission accomplishment, we really wonder whether the contractor “partners” are focused on contributing to these goals in a cost effective manner.
Kelman continued with his usual theme of criticizing what he calls the “fear industry”, which this time he defined as including Inspectors General, some reporters and some elected officials. (It appears he doesn’t understand that these independent overseers are necessary because too many times, the very contracting officers Kelman thinks he is defending, like Bunny Greenhouse, tried to fix the system from the inside but were prevented at every step.) However, what took several people in the audience aback, along with those of us at POGO, was Kelman’s comparison of these “fear industry” mongers, as being akin to 19th century management in their attitude toward workers in the New England textile mills. One witness marveled that he even went so far as to compare the “fear industry” to -- get this -- slave-masters, and civil servants to slaves.
Really? Those who dare to question or even criticize the current contracting system are that bad? Look, we share Kelman’s loyalty to civil servants. However, the civil servants we hear from tell us their biggest concern is that contractors are increasingly influencing or even dictating government policies, making it harder for them to do their job protecting the public interest. The good news is some of the high rollers in the government contracting industry who were there to hear this craziness were themselves appalled. They are beginning to remember that they are taxpayers too, and they are quietly glad there are some people out there who are paying attention.
- Danielle Brian