Lies, Spies and the Trouble with Contracting

         I was working away at my desk in Building Two of the Pearl Harbor Navel Shipyard when a painter suddenly appeared, shoved my desk away from the wall and  started rolling paint on the wall, rolling right over the curled-up and chipped paint already there. This was a pre-war building, in other words had survived the 1941 attack, and looked as if it hadn’t been painted since then,  but even I knew they weren’t doing it right. “Shouldn’t you prep it first?” I asked. “Oh, no” said the painter,  “We use this really good paint – don’t need prepping.”

       For the rest of that day and the next, our walls looked as if they developed a case of acne. Finally on the third day I heard someone yelling out on the second-story veranda. It was a young Lt jg chewing out the painting contractor in what we euphemistically called “Shipyard language.”  The next day they finally did the prep and did the job right.

       The young lieutenant was what in the Navy is called a Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative.(COTR).  He had taken a two-week course in managing contracts, developing specs etc and all the other work involved with making sure the Navy and the public were getting what they paid for. Some people foolishly think that contracting solves your workforce problems.  It doesn’t,  but it substitutes a different set of problems that may, in the circumstances,  be easier to staff. It seldom saves money, because if you’re doing it honestly, you have to add the cost of the COTR, and their staff, and their training. All government agencies are committed to contracting “nonessential functions” or “commercial activities”, like painting, janitorial services, laundry etc to civilian companies or individuals. In those days, it was not considered wise to contract out “essential functions” which need to be kept with government employees for security and other concerns, and in a nuclear Naval Shipyard there were plenty of security issues.  

       So, it is with some amount of amazement I’m following the sorry saga of Booz, Hamilton and their not-very-well supervised employee, Ed Snowden.  That a newbie with only three months on the books would be given the kind of access he was given is ridiculous,but this is the kind of risk you take when you contract out work that would more sanely be done by government employees.  The anti-government politics of the last few years has encouraged cuts in staff in favor of contractors who in turn cut corners. Sounds like Booz, Hamilton did.

       In sum, contracting won’t always save you money but it can definitely be the right thing to do if you don’t want to spend your time doing bookkeeping, janitorial work, payroll or whatever.  Just remember that contracting out a function doesn’t make it  go away; it just makes it easier to forget about.  

With that cheery thought, all good wishes for a relaxed and safe Fourth of July.

UPDATE: The Huff Post carried a good piece on the perils of contracting out national security.  It’s in the morning edition of the “Politics” section and I apologize for not being able to get the  link to work .  Worth visiting their site.

5 thoughts on “Lies, Spies and the Trouble with Contracting

    • Not forgetting about him at all, just not writing about him. His is a completely different situation and I have a lot more sympathy for him as I believe he was merely naive whereas Snowden had other motives. Since you bring it up, do you think the Army would have assigned a newbie to this type of work at three months?? NO way.

      • I agree that the circumstances are different, although I see Snowden as the more legitimate “hero”. I can’t help but get the impression you’re more sympathetic towards him simply because he’s a government employee.

          • Thanks for clarifying. I don’t really care what happens to either of them but I understand that Snowden cravenly joined the military in order to make a name for himself whereas Manning joined with pure intentions. My post was about contracting and the fact that Snowden should have been screened out or watched more carefully. Thanks for your thoughts.

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