Dec 31 2009

Trading Places

Everyone agrees the IT Exchange Program makes sense, but will it ever get out of the starting gate?

Federal Law Enforcement Training Center CIO Sandy Peavy was tantalizingly close to closing the first Information Technology Exchange Program deal.

The center, which trains law enforcement officials for national, state and international organizations, was the first agency out of the ITEP gate.

ITEP is officially open for business. All that remains is for someone to step up and actually do the first exchange. But time is running out. As of May, with only six months to go before authority for the job exchange program expires, government officials had yet to send any federal workers out to industry or to receive any employees from companies.

FLETC’s experience is emblematic of ITEP. Peavy was working with a company interested in sending an IT administrator and a database security expert to work at FLETC for a few months. The center’s Human Resources Department and counsel had resolved questions about security clearances, noncompete clauses, disclosure agreements and financial statements. Everything was set.

Sudden Stop

Then, the attorney for the company pulled out of the deal over salary concerns. “We came to a screeching halt,” Peavy says. When the company sends an employee out to do an exchange, it charges the employee’s salary as an indirect expense to the receiving company’s contract. Because the client in this case was a federal agency, the company’s counsel was worried the exchange would violate the terms of the company’s contract with FLETC, even though the Office of Personnel Management policy says the government may reimburse private-sector organizations for pay or benefits.

Despite that setback, Peavy is upbeat about ITEP and remains convinced that somewhere out there she’s going to find an IT administrator and a database security person who’d like an insider’s view of federal IT operations.

Like hosts who’ve planned the perfect party, FLETC, the Defense Department and the Commerce Department have everything ready to go and are just waiting for the right candidates to say, “Yes.”

Created by the E-government Act of 2002, ITEP gives private-sector and government IT specialists a chance to see the world from the other side of the fence during a three- to 12-month workforce exchange. “It’s a unique opportunity for DOD and other federal agencies and the private sector to share best practices and to get a better understanding of each others’ IT structures,” says DOD Director of CIO Management Services Joyce France.

On a personal level, jumping the fence to work on the other side can be a viewpoint-changing event, says Robert Woods, president of Topside Consulting Group of Vienna, Va. Woods should know; he’s a former senior federal IT official and current chairman of the Industry Advisory Council (IAC).

“People tend to be critical from a distance,” he says. “There are still industry people who think government people are there because they can’t find anything else and government people who think all industry people are crooks.”

After working in both environments, people find out how hard their counterparts work. But now that happens only when folks leave their current jobs permanently, and there’s no enlightenment that the companies and agencies can capitalize on, Woods says. Through temporary ITEP assignments, feds and vendors alike will “know more, and they’ll be smarter.” It’s a chance for feds to take advantage of real-world project management training, too, he points out.

For ITEP to get to its current point, agencies had to first lay out policies and guidance for the program. France says DOD has ironed out all the problems and concerns with its counsel, and the OPM has published ITEP policy for use by civilian agencies. Templates and tools for running the program are on the DOD and OPM Web sites.

But marketing ITEP to private and public IT workers and their companies has not been without its challenges. “Some of the private-sector companies may be hesitant because of acquisition and contracting rules,” says France.

Commerce CIO Barry West agrees. “There’s a fair amount of concern with being perceived as having gained an unfair advantage and being blocked from future procurements,” he says.

In the case of ITEP, perception and reality are two different things. “We’ve vetted that issue through our legal counsel, and we have memorandums of agreement so companies will benefit from this program and not be penalized when bidding on contracts in the future,” France says.

To overcome those issues, DOD, OPM and Commerce are reaching out to employees through the CIO Council, creating job Web sites that promote ITEP and working with trade associations such as IAC.

Hurdles Ahead

The need for publicity isn’t the only challenge facing ITEP. There’s the fast-approaching cut-off date, a need to sell the program to federal employees and questions about how agencies that are already thin in IT can stretch their workforces to cover the absence of an employee who is out on an exchange.

The pending deadline issue arises because Congress gave the agencies only until this December to begin exchanges. “Hopefully, we’re looking at them extending the legislation so we have time to implement the program, analyze the results and provide good feedback to OPM and the Hill on what we may need to change,” says France.

Finding federal employees willing to work in industry may also be problematic. “I think the private-side people would jump on it,” says West. “I think it will be tougher to get the government folks. People worry about benefits or if they go out there, and the company lets them go. They feel like if they get out of line [for promotion], they’ll be out of the loop.”

Instead of worrying about such fears, federal employees should think about the long-term gain of participating in ITEP. “To step up to big-scale leadership, you need perspective and experience. People who go into this will have something that’s lifelong,” West says.

At the agency level, it may be extremely difficult for thinly staffed IT departments to let a skilled worker go. FLETC, for example, has a systems organization that is quite flat. “I’m one deep in so many areas,” says Peavy. “I’ve got to get more stable before I can do that.”

Woods agrees: “The proof will come when somebody has to let his or her best GS-15 go. It’s tough to let that guy go.”

On the other hand, ITEP could be a way for agencies to bring in talent needed to fill mission-critical IT roles that remain unfilled and to stretch resources in an environment where two years of continuing resolutions and tough budgets have made it difficult for agencies to find manpower to even get the program going.

One thing everyone on both sides of the fence can agree upon is that ITEP is a great idea. Peavy is confident that the right candidate is out there to fill FLETC’s policy and data security positions. “We’re in a great location in southern Georgia with palm trees and tropical weather,” she concludes. “These are great opportunities. Once we make it work once, people are going to see the benefit.”