Are tight budgets straining trust between agencies, industry?

Friday - 5/23/2014, 8:30am EDT

Michael Fischetti, executive director, National Contract Management Association

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Tom Mason, partner in government contracts practice, Cooley LP

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Even under the best circumstances, the relationship between agencies and industry can be strained at times.

But are federal budget and staffing shortfalls — particularly among the federal government's acquisition workforce — fueling a climate of mistrust between the government and its contractors?

It's not quite that dire yet, contracting experts told Federal News Radio as part of the special series, Trust Redefined: Reconnecting Government and Its Employees.

But improving the relationship between government and industry remains deserving of some attention — especially in today's austere budget climate.

"It's no secret that [in terms of] the numbers of federal employees, there's a decrease, the retirements are going up, certainly the budget issues of the last couple years don't improve morale within the federal-employee workspace," said Michael Fischetti, executive director of the National Contract Management Association, in an interview on In Depth with Francis Rose. "And as those folks leave, the ability of the government to hire and retain quality individuals that understand the requirements that they're levying on the contractor is challenging. So the contractor and the government have to have their best foot forward in this relationship and communicate well to make that happen. And that's been a concern."

As more work gets contracted out, it's important that the federal acquisition workforce keep up.

"The contractor is being asked to do more and more, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing," he said. "But it's imperative that the government have the skill set and the ability to understand what the contractor is supposed to do, what they're not supposed to do and to manage that accordingly."

Collaboration on a decline?

Tom Mason, a partner in the government contracts practice at Cooley LP, agreed that resource constraints at many agencies have challenged efforts to be more collaborative.

"Where collaboration starts to decline is where the staffing in the government is not sufficient to keep up with all the contracts that are being awarded and performed," Mason said. "And I think there where you have a lacking of government-trained folks or you have a lacking of enough people to administer the contracts. That's where I think that you'll see contractors say that they wish they had more opportunity to communicate with their customer."

The key, the experts said, is to strive to maintain open communication.

"Government and industry communicating with each other and certainly that has been limited in the last couple of years, for sure," Fischetti said.

But in contrast to many of the problems surrounding trust in the federal workplace — a tougher response to military sexual assaults or reforms to whistleblower laws — building up trust between contractor and agency contracting officer doesn't necessarily require action from Capitol Hill.

"It's not necessarily grandiose statements or policy memos or speeches and even new reform legislation," Fischetti said. "I think it's down-and-dirty, in-the-trenches of building those skill sets and those competencies."

MORE FROM THE SPECIAL REPORT, TRUST REDEFINED:

4 viewpoints on trust in government

Analysis: Trust doesn't exist without employee engagement

Column: How to make the federal workforce feel respected once again

Column: Congress can't be trusted to do right by feds

Column: Don't treat whistleblowers like the plague

Full coverage: Trust Redefined